Saturday, March 31, 2012

EmDo Expansion - Planets

As I posted last time, I have been looking at the current incarnation of the cards for the EmDo expansion. Today I took a closer look at the new planets to see how I felt about them. for reference, here's the details for the new planets:

New Planets
Hostile Planets: Cost- 1 Destroyer, effect- 1 Fighter icon.
I really like these. Thus far I've been saying you can only use them once per turn - that's sort of how the other icons work (but admittedly only because you never had the opportunity to count them more than once in a turn). But I'm beginning to think that's too fiddly. It would certainly make them more powerful, but would it be TOO powerful to use them more than once in a turn (for example if you attack 2 different planets in a turn, via War Path, or one in your Action phase and another in your Role phase)? Also, I believe I only have 3 of these (one of each type). Should I make another 3 (so 6 total)? Or is 3 enough?

Civilized Planets: Each of the Civilized planets has the Peace treaty effect on it. I like these. I believe I have 6 of them (2 of each type). I might like to decrease the cost of at least half of them - I think I've increased the average planet costs a little too much. So maybe 3 of them are worth fewer points and only cost 3, while the other three are worth more points and cost 5?

"Action" Planets: There are 6 planets which each have one of the basic actions on it:

  • Draw 2 cards
  • Attack 1 Planet
  • Settle 1 planet
  • Produce 1 Resource
  • Trade 1 Resource for 1 Influence
  • Remove up to 2 cards in hand from the game
I like these, and have been able to make good use of them, especially in combination with Double Time. But I wonder if their effect shouldn't be amplified a little bit - why not make them the Improved versions..? At least some of them, like the Survey and the Produce action seem so weak on their own. However, every time I have this thought, I decide in the end to keep them as-is.

In looking at the planets again today I think I've decided the following:
Hostile Planets: I'm debating the merits of using the fighter once per turn vs once per Action/Role. I'm not sure which is easier to explain and I'm also not sure whether more than once per turn would be too good or not.

Civilized Planets: I changed the Colonize cost of three of the planets to 3, leaving the others at 5 to Colonize.
Action Planets: I have reduced the Colonize cost of those planets to 4 instead of 5. I didn't mean to increase the average planet cost as much as I did, and 4 is probably closer in value to a Destroyer anyway. I think I have decided to keep the effects as they currently are.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

EmDo Expansion - Detailed update

I need to finalize the EmDo expansion pretty soon and get the thing into production, so to that end I thought I'd list all the new tech cards and other aspects out and comment on them here... hopefully this will help identify what needs to be done before this expansion can go to print!

I've been calling this expansion "Warmonger," but have recently been leaning away from that so as not to raise inaccurate expectations. Currently considering "Escalation," which seems to fit the feel of the expansion a little better (even if the word is not as cool).

End Game Dynamic
I mentioned in a previous post that I was considering a new game end dynamic - when the game end is triggered, you finish out the round and then play 1 full round (rather than just finishing the round and being done right there). I have been liking this more and more, so I'm leaning toward making that the rule for the expansion (and an approved variant for the base game).

Fleet Tile
I do like the fleet tile, but I'm not positive this is exactly how it'll work. It's close though:

Action: Discard 3 Fighters to collect a Destroyer.
Action: Discard 2 Destroyers to put your Dreadnaught into play.
While your Dreadnaught is in play, your Warfare costs are -1.
Research Role: Pay 5 Research or 5 Fighters to flip Fleet to Improved Fleet

Improved Fleet
Action: Discard Fighters, collect 1 Destroyer for every 2 Fighters discarded.
Action: Discard 2 Destroyers to put your Dreadnaught into play.

While your Dreadnaught is in play, your Warfare costs are -2.
During an Attack, you may discard a Dreadnaught to satisfy the Warfare Cost of any planet.

5 players
I have been planning to expand the game to accommodate a 5th player. The following changes will be required to support that:

  • Add 4 cards to each stack. These cards will be marked as "For 5p only"
  • Include a 5th Politics card
  • Add the 8 blue Influence tokens to the supply
  • When the game end trigger occurs, finish the current round and then play 1 final round
I do not believe any further changes need to be made. I added the new end game dynamic discussed above - probably even more important with more players.

New Tech Cards
I am fairly happy with most of the new tech cards, but I've still got some decisions to make. For example, I like the idea of L1 tech cards costing 3 fighters, L2 costing 5 fighters, and L3 costing 7 fighters - it mirrors the Research cost and is therefore easily internalized and remembered. However, I also like the idea of L2 techs costing a Destroyer and L3 techs costing a Dreadnaught. Currently the Advanced/Fertile/Metallic tech cards follow the first format - 3/5/7 fighters (or 3/5/7 Research), and the Diverse tech cards (requiring A+F+M) follow the latter format - 3Fighters/Destroyer/Dreadnaught (or 3/5/7 Research, of course).
  • Should all new L2 costs be the same (either 5F or 1D)? Or is it acceptable to have some cost 5F while others cost 1D? I think the consistency is good to have.
  • Which should it be? 3F/5F/7F, or 3F/1D/1Dn?
  • If Tech cards cost 1 Destroyer or 1 Dreadnaught, does that make it too easy to, say, obtain Annex 1 turn, then immediately use Annex to pay for Well Oiled Machine? I currently have them at 3vp (not 5), but does that make up for it?
L1 Double Time (2 in each stack): Action: Play 2 additional Actions during this Action phase.
I'm very happy with the effect of this card, and the number of copies in the game. I'm not sure about the Exotic icon - should I include that for integration with the Exotic expansion? Or should I just leave that off altogether? I think I am happy with these cards having a Resource on them as well.
L1 Peace Treaty (P) (1 in each stack): Collect 1 Influence when Dissenting a Warfare role.
I am happy with this card. I have decided that the power of Warfare Tech is more appropriate at Level 2, and that the power of Peace Treaty by itself is appropriate for Level 1. I fully expect to hear complaints from both sides - those who complain the card is too weak, since their opponents simply stopped taking Warfare roles and then it wasn't worth any points, and those who complain the card is too strong, because their opponent scored a lot of points off of it. In either case, that's a fairly high level of interaction that some say is missing from the game, and I'll note that the purpose of the Peace Treaty is not to be a big point scorer - it's to slow down a Warmongering opponent! In that respect, if your Peace Treaty scores no points because you're opponent stopped calling Warfare, then it did its job!

L1 Improved Research: Action: Draw 1 card, then remove up to 3 cards in hand from the game.
Originally I had made these purchasable only with Fighters. More recently I standardized the costs for all of the new tech cards, because it's a PITA when each card has some individual cost - I much prefer the ease of play when the costs are easily internalized and remembered. I am fairly happy with these incarnations, and I like having L1 cards with Fighters on them.
L1 Improved Trade: Action: Collect 1 Influence from the supply.
See Improved Research, above.
L1 Freedom of Trade (P): [2 Trade icons] You may follow Trade roles as if they were Produce, and you can Follow Produce roles as if they were Trade.
Since adding 2 trade symbols to this card, I have been happy with it. It's difficult to make good use out of it in the early game, but that's OK with me. I think it has potential to be good later, but that means you either have to take it early and then pursue making it good, or you have to consider taking it later in the game, when you might be able to get a L2 tech instead. With only 1 Trade symbol I don't think it would be attractive enough, so I think I like it as-is. Does it really need TWO trade icons? Is 1 good enough?
L2 Scientific Discovery: Action: Take any tech card costing 3 or less into your hand. Play another action.
This is significantly different than the original version, but it accomplishes what I wanted to accomplish - it lets players get more L1 techs into their decks. I like the "Play another Action" part because I don't think it would be too desirable to just get some Improved tech into your hand to maybe use next turn - instead the card acts as if it IS the new card you just got (by giving you the chance to play it). This card lets you get tech you don't have access to due to your planets, maybe most importantly Double Times. I am fond of this card, and I think I will keep this version of it.
L2 Soldiers of Fortune: Action: Trade a destroyer for 3vp.
I have yet to see this one work very well, but I recently took steps to make Destroyers more important in the game, so I think this card will be reasonable. 3vp is nothing to scoff at.
L2 Scientific Method (P): [Research icon] You may buy 1 additional tech card during a Research role. Costs and prerequisites must be paid for each tech card separately.
Being able to purchase 2 tech cards at a time isn't amazing by itself, but as an ancillary benefit on a card that gives you a Research icon it's not so bad. Especially when you consider that you can purchase 1 card with Research symbols and another with Fighters... I'm pretty happy with this card as-is.
L2 Defense Contract (P): Once per turn: Trade 1 Resource or Fighter for 1 Influence.
A play tester insisted that this card was too powerful. I am not sure I've ever seen it in play in its current incarnation. It definitely seems like a decent enough card, and I think I'm happy with it, but I suppose I should force myself to get it into play more often and see how it feels.

L1 Improved Colonization: Action: Settle 1 planet. Then Settle another planet or +1 Colony.
See Improved Research, above.
L1 Improved Production: Action: Produce 2 Resources.
See Improved Research, above.

L1 Utility (P): You may spend Resources as if they were symbols to Boost or Follow any role.
I had added a Produce icon to this, but then decided that was way too powerful for a L1 tech. This card is good enough without the icon, and has actually seen some good use in my test games. I'm happy with it.
L2 Specialized Production: Action: +1 Influence for each resource of a particular type.
Seems like a no-brainer. Parallel with Specialization. I'm happy with this one.
L2 Spoils of War: Action: Discard any number of Fighters. Produce 2 Resources for each Fighter discarded this way.
This one I'm not so sure about. I upgraded it to be "get 2 resources per Fighter you discard" - and the fact that you can produce a handful of resources as an action (which could be followed by a Trade role) seems like it should be decent. Yet I have not really seen this card used well. I would think it could combo well with Freedom of Trade and Utility. Does this card seem more like a Metallic tech? My thought was that it would be Fertile because it's effect produces Resources, and that's kind of a Fertile thing to do.
L2 Biosphere (P): [Produce icon] [Any Resource Slot] [Any Resource Slot]
I changed the resource slots on this to "Any Resource," which makes it combo well with either Specialized Production/Specialization OR Genetic Engineering/Diverse Markets. That made it a little bit stronger. That and a Production icon and I think I'm happy with this one.
L2 Colony Ship (P): Once per turn and during Colonize actions and roles: You may tuck cards under Colony Ship as if it were a planet. During a Colonize role you may rearrange all Colonies in your Empire.
This card never seemed to get used, until I added "Once per turn..." - allowing you to slowly 'streamline' Colonize cards out of your deck, and then in a Colonize role, use them to flip a planet. Now I think this card is really cool and I'm happy with it. Not sure about the wording though. My intent was that players could tuck colonies under it just as if it were a planet, including during a Colonize Action or Role. Should that be the case? Or should you ONLY get to tuck colonies once per turn, then get them all off at once with a colonize role? In either case, what's the best wording for this, and how will it fit on the card?

L1 Improved Warfare: Action: Collect 2 Fighters or Attack 1 Planet.
See Improved Research, above.

L1 Improved Survey: Action: Draw 3 cards.
See Improved Research, above.

L1 Thorough Scanning (P): You may draw 2 fewer cards during a Survey role. If you do, you may keep 1 additional Planet.
I've been happy with this all along, and still am.
L2 Deep Space Probes: Action: Search the Planet deck and discard pile for any 1 planet. Shuffle the planet deck and discard and place the chosen planet on top. Play another action.
This one is a little tricky to use well, which is why I added the "play another action" clause. It would work nicely with Survey Team or Mobilization, but that's not the point... is it useful on it's own? I think it's useful enough. It's one of those cards where you have to really know what you're doing to use it well, and will therefore probably not see a lot of use, but I think it's OK to have some cards like that.
L2 Dreadnaught Technology: Action: Collect your Dreadnaught.
I think I like this one as-is. I'm considering improving it by not making you trade in a Destroyer. Frankly, if you have Improved Fleet, then you can already change Dreadnaught Tech and another Destroyer into a Dreadnaught - but this card is still a discount if you haven't flipped your Fleet tile. I don't know if that's good enough, and most of the time this is purchased I think it's just for the Destroyer icon. Yeah, maybe I'll just make it "Get a Dreadnaught" - you can only have 1 at a time anyway. A lot of the time that will translate to "Action: get 2VP, once." which is probably fair.

Edit: I have decided to change this to "Collect your Dreadnaught."

L2 Warfare Technology (P): You may spend Fighters as if they were research symbols during Research roles.
I have seen this in play, when it was combined with Peace Treaty. It can be really good. The effect is definitely L2 in power, so I've made it a L2 tech. I think I'm happy with that.
L2 Wealth of Knowledge (P): You may use standard Survey cards to Boost (not Follow) any role.
I continue to like this one a lot as-is.
L2 Synthesize: Action: Search your deck and discard pile for any card and put it into your hand. Shuffle your deck and discard pile to create a new deck. Play another action.
I continue to like this a lot as-is. Currently it has "Any Resource" in the corner - should I add a Fighter as well? I suspect people will use it for the action more than anything else anyway.
L2 Destroyer Technology: Action: Collect 2 Destroyers.
After upping this to 2 Destroyers rather than just 1, I really like it.
L2 Midnight Oil: Action: Choose a Role. Opponents may Follow or Dissent as normal.
This is a new one, and hasn't been in play too much yet, but it seems cool. I currently have 2 Exotic icons on the card, but that's probably not too good. Maybe I should put a resource and a Fighter instead?
L2 Oversight Committee (P): Hand Size +2
I like this card. I moved it tot he Diverse stack to make room for Warfare Tech, which struck me as a Metallic tech (while Oversight Committee strikes me as a Diverse tech).
L2 Military Campaign (P): You may attack FACE UP planets in opponents' Empires. Spend 1 Dreadnaught and Fighters equal to the Influence value of the Planet. Opponent may discard a Dreadnaught to cancel this attack. If they don't, they collect 2 Influence ("Reparations") from the supply.
This has proven to be a fairly interesting dynamic in some of our 2p games. I haven't really seen it in 3 or 4 player games, but the Reparations seems to make it good and fair. I recently added that a player can discard a Dreadnaught to cancel the attack, and I'm not sure if I like that or not. I may remove it.
L3 Annex: Action: Attack a FACE DOWN planet in an opponent's Empire and put it face up in yours. They collect 2 Influence ("Reparations") from the supply.
I think this is good and fair as well. I like it. And I like that it's a Dreadnaught that you can hold in your hand.
L3 Well Oiled Machine (P):You may take an additional Role during your Role phase.
I like this one. That the opponents can follow or dissent keeps it from being broken at all.
L3 Wingman (P): [Destroyer icon]
I like the idea of a Destroyer you can spend every turn, but I haven't really seen this in play yet. Is it good enough for a L3 tech?

New Planets
Hostile Planets: Cost- 1 Destroyer, effect- 1 Fighter icon. I really like these. Thus far I've been saying you can only use them once per turn - that's sort of how the other icons work (but admittedly only because you never had the opportunity to count them more than once in a turn). But I'm beginning to think that's too fiddly. It would certainly make them more powerful, but would it be TOO powerful to use them more than once in a turn (for example if you attack 2 different planets in a turn, via War Path, or one in your Action phase and another in your Role phase)? Also, I believe I only have 3 of these (one of each type). Should I make another 3 (so 6 total)? Or is 3 enough?

Civilized Planets: Each of the Civilized planets has the Peace treaty effect on it. I like these. I believe I have 6 of them (2 of each type). I might like to decrease the cost of at least half of them - I think I've increased the average planet costs a little too much. So maybe 3 of them are worth fewer points and only cost 3, while the other three are worth more points and cost 5?

"Action" Planets: There are 6 planets which each have one of the basic actions on it:
  • Draw 2 cards
  • Attack 1 Planet
  • Settle 1 planet
  • Produce 1 Resource
  • Trade 1 Resource for 1 Influence
  • Remove up to 2 cards in hand from the game
I like these, and have been able to make good use of them, especially in combination with Double Time. But I wonder if their effect shouldn't be amplified a little bit - why not make them the Improved versions..? At least some of them, like the Survey and the Produce action seem so weak on their own. However, every time I have this thought, I decide in the end to keep them as-is.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

EmDo End game Variant

I'm considering a slightly different end game dynamic for the expansion, which could be used as a variant for the standard game as well:

When the game end triggers, finish out the round as normal, then play 1 full round.

This way all players will know for a fact whether it's their last turn or not. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.

4/29/12 Update: The more I play this variant, the more I dislike it for 2 players. I think it's a good idea for 3-4 players though. I do not know if it'll end up in the rulebook or not.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Warfare Tech too strong for Level 1 Tech

When I first made the Warfare Tech cards I worried that they'd be too strong for level 1 cards. At the same time I thought Peace Treaty was too weak, and that combining those 2 didn't really make Warfare Tech any stronger - instead I thought it would be more interesting because more different players would be interested in those cards.

Playtester feedback has been pretty universal that Warfare Tech is too strong. On one hand, this confirms a suspicion I had in the beginning. On the other hand, having played many times as-is, I have not seen the player with Warfare Tech winning regularly, or even more than their fair share. So I was hesitant to weaken the card, thinking perhaps that Warfare Tech was one of those things that looks stronger than it really is.

At this point I've become more of the opinion that the effect of Warfare Tech is on the order of a Level 2 power, not Level 1. Furthermore, while I was worried that players would not want to "waste" a Research role on "just" a Peace Treaty (because it would be "useless" if the opponent simply stops calling Warfare), it occurred to me that forcing your opponent to stop or slow down their Warfare calls (or making them give you a VP if they don't) is far from a waste! So I'm looking at removing the Warfare Tech portion and leaving just Peace treaty on the level 1 permanent techs. Perhaps I'll add a level 2 tech that has the Warfare Tech power (probably in the Metallic stack).

But wait - doesn't that destroy a big. fundamental goal of the expansion? Didn't I want players to be able to get Tech cards without having to fill their decks with Research cards? Well, that's true, but I think the better way accomplish that is to make sure that all (or at least most) of the new tech cards are purchasable with Fighters (or Destroyers) - which is what I've done. I've gone through all of the new Tech cards and made sure that all of them (except Double Time, currently, but I might change that) can be purchased with Fighters instead of Research symbols.

I also wanted Destroyers to be a bigger deal, so I actually made more of the tech cards cost a Destroyer instead of some Fighters. And finally, I made all of the level 3 techs (Annex, and the new permanent techs Well Oiled Machine/Wingman*) cost a Dreadnaught instead of 7 Research symbols. I am completely open to name suggestions for these by the way.

* Did I not mention? I made a couple more tech cards for the Diverse stack:
Well Oiled Machine: You may take an additional Role phase each turn. Opponents may Follow or Dissent as normal.
Cost: 7 Research OR Dreadnaught
Wingman: [Destroyer icon] (A Destroyer you can spend once per turn, like the Fighter cons on the hostile planets)
Cost: 7 Research OR Dreadnaught
Midnight Oil: Action: choose a Role. Players may Follow or Dissent as normal.

Cost: 5 Research OR Destroyer

In other news, I thought Oversight Committee might be too powerful at "+2 Hand Size" - so I tried adjusting it to "+1 Hand Size" and added "Action: Draw 3 Cards" - I like the idea of tech cards with actions on them. however, I kinda liked the simplicity and strength of "+2 Hand Size," so I might switch it back. Or more specifically, I could make the back side of Wealth of Knowledge be "Warfare Technology," and replace Combat Maneuvers with Oversight Committee. It seems like Combat Maneuvers is never used, and I'm not sure whether it's really very useful. Of course, I've taken steps to make Destroyers a bigger deal, so maybe that card will improve a bit..?

At any rate, I'm enjoying the expansion, and i like the direction it's taken. I think it's nearing completion. I'd love to hear some more playtest reports from people, especially if they've been keeping up with the adjustments I've been making.

Speaking of playtesters, I'd like to give a big thanks out to those who have printed out the expansion and provided feedback! All of it is very useful and helpful. Thanks for being part of the process :)

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Another round of Warmonger updates

I went through the Warmonger tech cards again and made a few more tweaks...

Philosophically, I thought it might be good to make it so that EACH of the new tech cards could be bought with Fighters (before there were some that had the normal Research cost, no fighters), so I went through and added "/ [Fighter icon]" to all of the new tech cards.

I also wanted Destroyers to be a bigger deal. Thus far they haven't had as much impact as I'd like. So I made a couple of tweaks to that end:
* All of the level 2 Diverse Tech cards cost 5 Research or 1 Destroyer now
* Destroyer Tech card now gives 2 Destroyers instead of 1 (it was not being used, and generally speaking not too useful)
* Annex now costs 7 Research or 1 Dreadnaught (I also wanted to see more Dreadnaughts in costs)

A few more tweaks to strengthen/weaken a few tech cards that seemed too weak/too strong:
* Oversight Committee: "+1 Hand Size, Action: Draw 3 cards" (instead of Hand Size +2). I'm not sure that's necessary, but hand size +2 is pretty darn good. I also wanted to see Actions on permanent tech cards.
* Colony Ship: I love the idea, but it does not seem to be useful enough, or useful often enough... now it reads "Once per turn (and during Colonize roles) you may tuck a Colonize card under Colony Ship as if it were a planet. During a Colonize Role you may redistribute all of the Colonies in your Empire." That wording isn't perfect - the intent is that once per turn you can 'streamline' a colonize card out of your deck by placing it under Colony Ship, and also when tucking colonies during a Colonize role (or action, I guess) you can treat Colony Ship as if it were a planet - then later you can use those to Colonize by shifting them over. I think this additional benefit will help enough to make this card desirable.
* Scientific Discovery: I'm going to try this version next: "Action: Take any Tech card costing 3 or less and put it into your hand. Play an additional action this turn."
* I haven't changed it at all, but I wonder if Combat Maneuvers isn't useful enough - I don't think I've ever seen it in play.
* Military Campaign: Added a clause that the opponent can discard a Dreadnaught to cancel the attack. The intent is that they'd choose to do that after the costs are paid (Fighters and Dreadnaught discarded by the Attacker). If they cancel the attack, they get no Reparations.

Status of Improved Fleet: I'm leaning toward 2vp for flipping the tile, and 2 more VP for having your Dreadnaught in play. Also, the Improved exchange rate I'm trying is:
* Action: 2 Fighters -> 1 Destroyer (as many times as you want)
* Action: 2 Destroyers -> 1 Dreadnaught

Also, I removed the "discard in lieu of fighters" ability from the Fleet side of the Fleet tile, mostly to make room for the Improved Fleet text.

There were a few more tech cards I wanted to add. I'm open to name suggestions on each of these by the way:
Midnight Oil
Diverse Level 2 (5 Research/1 Destroyer)
2 Exotic symbols (I wasn't sure what to put on there)
Action: Choose a Role. Opponents can Follow or Dissent as normal.

Well Oiled Machine
Diverse Level 3 Permanent (7 Research/1 Dreadnaught)
You may take an additional Role phase each turn. If you do, opponents can Follow or Dissent as normal.

Diverse Level 3 Permanent (7 Research/1 Dreadnaught)
[Destroyer icon] (A Destroyer you can spend once per turn, like the fighters on the Hostile planets)

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Positive and Negative Feedback Loops - Positive or Negative for a game?

I saw this post on BGG today, quoting something very interesting from some online game design course (?). I wish I could link to or credit the original author, and read more of that type of stuff, but I do not know where it came from. I hope that the link above will suffice - I wanted to re-post it here, mostly so I can find it again! If you know where this came from, please let me know!

Feedback Loops

One kind of dynamic that is often seen in games and deserves special attention is known as the feedback loop. There are two types, positive feedback loops and negative feedback loops. These terms are borrowed from other fields such as control systems and biology, and they mean the same thing in games that they mean elsewhere.

A positive feedback loop can be thought of as a reinforcing relationship. Something happens that causes the same thing to happen again, which causes it to happen yet again, getting stronger in each iteration – like a snowball that starts out small at the top of the hill and gets larger and faster as it rolls and collects more snow.

As an example, there is a relatively obscure shooting game for the NES called The Guardian Legend. Once you beat the game, you got access to a special extra gameplay mode. In this mode, you got rewarded with power-ups at the end of each level based on your score: the higher your score, the more power-ups you got for the next level. This is a positive feedback loop: if you get a high score, it gives you more power-ups, which make it easier to get an even higher score in the next level, which gives you even more power-ups, and so on.

Note that in this case, the reverse is also true. Suppose you get a low score. Then you get fewer power-ups at the end of that level, which makes it harder for you to do well on the next level, which means you will probably get an even lower score, and so on until you are so far behind that it is nearly impossible for you to proceed at all.

The thing that is often confusing to people is that both of these scenarios are positive feedback loops. This seems counterintuitive; the second example seems very “negative,” as the player is doing poorly and getting fewer rewards. It is “positive” in the sense that the effects get stronger in magnitude on each iteration.

There are three properties of positive feedback loops that game designers should be aware of:

They tend to destabilize the game, as one player gets further and further ahead (or behind).
They cause the game to end faster.
The put emphasis on the early game, since the effects of early-game decisions are magnified over time.
Feedback loops usually have two steps (as in my The Guardian Legend example) but they can have more. For example, some Real-Time Strategy games have a positive feedback loop with four steps: players explore the map, which gives them access to more resources, which let them buy better technology, which let them build better units, which let them explore more effectively (which gives them access to more resources… and the cycle repeats). As such, detecting a positive feedback loop is not always easy.

Here are some other examples of positive feedback loops that you might be familiar with:

Most “4X” games, such as the Civilization and Master of Orion series, are usually built around positive feedback loops. As you grow your civilization, it lets you generate resources faster, which let you grow faster. By the time you begin conflict in earnest with your opponents, one player is usually so far ahead that it is not much of a contest, because the core positive feedback loop driving the game means that someone who got ahead of the curve early on is going to be much farther ahead in the late game.
Board games that feature building up as their primary mechanic, such as Settlers of Catan. In these games, players use resources to improve their resource production, which gets them more resources.
The physical sport Rugby has a minor positive feedback loop: when a team scores points, they start with the ball again, which makes it slightly more likely that they will score again. The advantage is thus given to the team who just gained an advantage. This is in contrast to most sports, which give the ball to the opposing team after a successful score.
Negative feedback loops are, predictably, the opposite of positive feedback loops in just about every way. A negative feedback loop is a balancing relationship. When something happens in the game (such as one player gaining an advantage over the others), a negative feedback loop makes it harder for that same thing to happen again. If one player gets in the lead, a negative feedback loop makes it easier for the opponents to catch up (and harder for a winning player to extend their lead).

As an example, consider a “Kart-style” racing game like Mario Kart. In racing games, play is more interesting if the player is in the middle of a pack of cars rather than if they are way out in front or lagging way behind on their own (after all, there is more interaction if your opponents are close by). As a result, the de facto standard in that genre of play is to add a negative feedback loop: as the player gets ahead of the pack, the opponents start cheating, finding better power-ups and getting impossible bursts of speed to help them catch up. This makes it more difficult for the player to maintain or extend a lead. This particular feedback loop is sometimes referred to as “rubber-banding” because the cars behave as if they are connected by rubber bands, pulling the leaders and losers back to the center of the pack.

Likewise, the reverse is true. If the player falls behind, they will find better power-ups and the opponents will slow down to allow the player to catch up. This makes it more difficult for a player who is behind to fall further behind. Again, both of these are examples of negative feedback loops; “negative” refers to the fact that a dynamic becomes weaker with iteration, and has nothing to do with whether it has a positive or negative effect on the player’s standing in the game.

Negative feedback loops also have three important properties:

They tend to stabilize the game, causing players to tend towards the center of the pack.
They cause the game to take longer.
They put emphasis on the late game, since early-game decisions are reduced in their impact over time.
Some examples of negative feedback loops:

Most physical sports like Football and Basketball, where after your team scores, the ball is given to the opposing team and they are then given a chance to score. This makes it less likely that a single team will keep scoring over and over.
The board game Starfarers of Catan has a negative feedback loop where every player with less than a certain number of victory points gets a free resource at the start of their turn. Early on, this affects all players and speeds up the early game. Later in the game, as some players get ahead and cross the victory point threshold, the players lagging behind continue to get bonus resources. This makes it easier for the trailing players to catch up.
My grandfather was a decent Chess player, generally better than his children who he taught to play. To make it more of a challenge, he invented a rule: if he won a game, next time they played, his opponent could remove a piece of his from the board at the start of the game (first a pawn, then two pawns, then a knight or bishop, and so on as the child continued to lose). Each time my grandfather won, the next game would be more challenging for him, making it more likely that he would eventually start losing.
Use of Feedback Loops

Are feedback loops good or bad? Should we strive to include them, or are they to be avoided? As with most aspects of game design, it depends on the situation. Sometimes, a designer will deliberately add mechanics that cause a feedback loop. Other times, a feedback loop is discovered during play and the designer must decide what (if anything) to do about it.

Positive feedback loops can be quite useful. They end the game quickly when a player starts to emerge as the winner, without having the end game be a long, drawn-out affair. On the other hand, positive feedback loops can be frustrating for players who are trying to catch up to the leader and start feeling like they no longer have a chance.

Negative feedback loops can also be useful, for example to prevent a dominant early strategy and to keep players feeling like they always have a chance to win. On the other hand, they can also be frustrating, as players who do well early on can feel like they are being punished for succeeding, while also feeling like the players who lag behind are seemingly rewarded for doing poorly.

What makes a particular feedback loop “good” or “bad” from a player perspective? This is debatable, but I think it is largely a matter of player perception of fairness. If it feels like the game is artificially intervening to help a player win when they don’t deserve it, it can be perceived negatively by players. How do you know how players will perceive the game? Playtest, of course.

Eliminating Feedback Loops

Suppose you identify a feedback loop in your game and you want to remove it. How do you do this? There are two ways.

The first is to shut off the feedback loop itself. All feedback loops (positive and negative) have three components:

A “sensor” that monitors the game state;
A “comparator” that decides whether to take action based on the value monitored by the sensor;
An “activator” that modifies the game state when the comparator decides to do so.
For example, in the earlier kart-racing negative feedback loop example, the “sensor” is how far ahead or behind the player is, relative to the rest of the pack; the “comparator” checks to see if the player is farther ahead or behind than a certain threshold value; and the “activator” causes the opposing cars to either speed up or slow down accordingly, if the player is too far ahead or behind. All of these may form a single mechanic (“If the player is more than 300 meters ahead of all opponents, multiply everyone else’s speed by 150%”). In other cases there may be three or more separate mechanics that cause the feedback loop, and changing any one of them will modify the nature of the loop.

By being aware of the mechanics causing a feedback loop, you can disrupt the effects by either removing the sensor, changing or removing the comparator, or modifying or removing the effect of the activator. Going back to our The Guardian Legend example (more points = more power-ups for the next level), you could deactivate the positive feedback loop by either modifying the sensor (measure something other than score… something that does not increase in proportion to how powered-up the player is), or changing the comparator (by changing the scores required so that later power-ups cost more and more, you can guarantee that even the best players will fall behind the curve eventually, leading to a more difficult end game), or changing the activator (maybe the player gets power-ups through a different method entirely, such as getting a specific set of power-ups at the end of each level, or finding them in the middle of levels).

If you do not want to remove the feedback loop from the game but you do want to reduce its effects, an alternative is to add another feedback loop of the opposing type. Again returning to the kart-racing example, if you wanted to keep the “rubber-banding” negative feedback loop, you could add a positive feedback loop to counteract it. For example, if the opposing cars get speed boosts when the player is ahead, perhaps the player can go faster as well, leading to a case where being in the lead makes the entire race go faster (but not giving an advantage or disadvantage to anyone). Or maybe the player in the lead can find better power-ups to compensate for the opponents’ new speed advantage.
 So, what's your opinion? Are feedback loops in general good for a game, or bad? I suppose it depends on the game and the type of feedback loop! I'll be more specific - is a Negative Feedback Loop an acceptable thing to have in a strategy game? Should Positive Feedback Loops be avoided for their potential to create a runaway leader?

Warmonger update - 3/9/12

I have been playing with the most recent tweaks, and I feel like I'm getting an even better understanding of where I want these new cards to go. Here are my latest thoughts on the Warmonger expansion cards that have been in flux:

Fleet Tile

I like the Improved Fleet idea, though it clearly needs some tweaks. I am waffling back and forth on whether it should give VPs just for flipping the tile, and then more VPs if you also have your Dreadnaught at game end - or if all the VPs should come from having your Dreadnaught in play.

A new idea is to add a defensive aspect to the Dreadnaught. This may be more specific to the Military Campaign card, but the idea is that a player could discard their Dreadnaught in order to cancel an attack on their planet. this would of course occur after the attacker has discarded their Dreadnaught.

e.g. "I will play a Warfare card for my action to attack. Since I have Military Campaign, I will attack your Advanced planet with a Research symbol. I discard my Dreadnaught and 3 fighters (because your planet is worth 3vp)... do you discard your Dreadnaught, or do I get your planet?"

Also, I think I'll take the 'discard a Dreadnaught in lieu of Fighters' text off of the standard fleet side to save text space. It's so costly to get your Dreadnaught in the first place (without flipping the tile) that I figure it's unlikely to happen much anyway.

Finally, I think that the Improved side is a little too good - it becomes too easy to get a dreadnaught, I think. Unimproved it costs 6 fighters and 3 actions to get a Dreadnaught in play. Improved it only costs 2 fighters and 2 actions. I feel like that's too much of a discount. What are the options for Improved Fleet then?
Option 1:
3 Fighters -> Destroyer
1 Destroyer -> Dreadnaught
(total: 3 Fighters + 2 actions, discount of 3 Fighters + 1 Action)

Option 2:

2 Fighters -> Destroyer
2 Destroyers -> Dreadnaught

(total: 4 Fighters + 3 actions, discount of 2 Fighters)

Option 3:

2 Fighters -> Destroyer
1 Destroyer + 2 Fighters -> Dreadnaught

(total: 4 Fighters + 2 actions, discount of 2 Fighters + 1 Action)

The intent was to make it easier to get both Destroyers as well as your Dreadnaught by upgrading the tile, which implies that Option 3 is the way to go.

Start Planets

I continue to be very happy with the expensive Start planets, despite some reports of players feeling like they were set back too far (by not being able to do Research as early). In most of those reports, the player with the expensive Start planet even won the game, but still felt disadvantaged in the early game. In my games however it feels exactly right, and the player with the expensive planet is only delayed in Researching by about 1 round if they try hard enough.

I have made 3 more expensive Start planets - the same as the first, but with the costs flipped - in order to try it out. I would like to provide at least enough for each player to have a choice between a cheap and an expensive start planet, and I intend to add a 5th player to the mix, so that implies I should use all 6 expensive Start planets. 6 is not a bad number, as there are 6 starting planets in the base game as well.

I've also tried the Utopian planets with Symbols on them, and they seem pretty much fine so far. I might not include them at all, or I might only include the 3 weaker symbols on them (Trade/Produce/Survey), but they're definitely an improvement on the previous cheap planets with icons!

I played with a cheap Prestige planet (Cost: 2/2, 4vp, no other use), and it was pretty neat as well. You CAN flip it quickly, but it does not help you to do so. To compensate you for that, it's worth an extra couple of points. I like it, but I don't know if I'll include it this time - mostly because I'm not sure how many Start planet tiles I really want to have in the box!

Tech Cards

I'm happy with all the tweaks I made to the tech cards such as Destroyer Technology, Dreadnaught Technology, Utillity, Freedom of Trade, and Biosphere. I've also tweaked a couple of other cards since my last post, which I'll discuss below...

Peace Treaty + Warfare Tech: This continues to be strong, but not broken as far as I can tell. Some players suggest that it is too good (and in fact 1 group has said they think the Peace Treaty by itself is so good as to be an auto-purchase every game) - but I haven't seen the player who gets this winning the game in my own experience... so I'm still hesitant on this one.

I could consider separating the Peace Treaty and the Warfare Tech abilities, putting them back to back. In that case I worry the Peace treaty by itself is too weak, so I could add a symbol - Survey/Trade/Produce for the Metallic/Advanced/Fertile versions. If I did this, I'd need to come up with a new level 1 permanent tech to go opposite Utility, Freedom of Trade, and Thorough Scanning, because I like those three!

Scientific Method: I was concerned that Scientific Method (Permanent tech - buy 1 additional tech card during Research roles) was not strong enough, because it's difficult to have enough symbols to buy 2 things at a time (if you have 6 symbols to buy 2 level 1 techs, you'd still rather have 1 Level 2 because it's worth VPs). So I added a Research icon to the card. It seemed far and useful, and so far it's been used several times to good effect! This might seem a little too good in conjunction with Warfare Tech, but I think that's more of a comment on Warfare Tech than on Scientific Method.

Scientific Discovery: Since I upgraded Scientific Method, I also had to upgrade Scientific Discovery. It suffered from another problem as well - Scientific Discovery has a Research icon on it, and it only offers a discount of 1 symbol per tech card purchased (and the ability to purchase 1 additional tech card). Therefore if you're only buying 1 tech card, it's better to not play the action and simply use the card for the symbol. You'd only play the action if you were going to buy two Level 1 techs (for 4 symbols), two level 2 techs (for 8 symbols), or a level 1 and a level 2 (for 6 symbols). That sounded OK to me at the time, but the purpose was supposed to be to allow a player to EITHER get 2 smaller techs OR help them get 1 bigger tech. So I tried upping the discount to 2 symbols per card purchased... this makes it similar to a card with 2 Research symbols (like Data Network) when going for a big (level 2 early, level 3 later) tech, and it makes getting two Level 2 techs fairly easy in the mid-game (you still need to have the right planets).

To tell you the truth, I'm not sure how much I like this bigger discount. It certainly seems to work, but I'm also considering some alternate effects for this card:

Action: Take any 3-cost Tech card into your hand. This includes tech cards you do not have access to normally, as well as Double Time.


Action: Remove a standard Role card from the game [or maybe return it to the Stacks]: Take an Improved tech of that type into your hand. So like remove a Survey card from the game, take any Improved Survey into hand (including one you haven't got the planets for, or one that costs Fighters instead of Research symbols). This one is a little more limited (no Double Time, and you have to have the right card in hand), but it also allows you to trim a lesser card from your deck.

I welcome any thoughts you may have on this, please leave a comment!

Other ideas - maybe for another expansion or maybe for this one:
I kinda like the idea of a tech card that gives you an extra Role phase. I figure there could be 2...
1. Level 2: Action: Choose a Role (other players may Follow or Dissent)
2. Level 3 Permanent: Choose an additional Role during your Role Phase each turn.

I might also like to see more tech that costs a Destroyer, tech that costs a Dreadnaught, and a tech that has a Fighter printed on it (like the Hostile planets).

If I were to make the 'take 2 Roles' tech above and have it cost Dreadnaught/7 Research, what should be on the back side of it? A card with a Destroyer printed on it (like the Fighters on Hostile planets - a Destroyer you could spend once each turn)? Also, what could these techs be called? I think they'd be in the "1 of each planet" pile.