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After 10 years of struggling, I might have stumbled on a 4X mechanic system.

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larienna's picture
Joined: 07/28/2008

When I first joined BGDF in around 2005-6, my most important project I desired to create was a master of magic board game. Now after many years of failure, compression, mechanic research, I declared the idea dead and impossible to make as a board game. The spell system being the extra cherry that screw up everything compared to civ and Space Opera board games which were successfully published.

Now while watching Nation Dice game review, I somewhat got an unrelated idea which ended up with a mechanic system that once tested, even if in early design, actually worked. Not only that, it could be reused for any other 4X theme game and it could also be reimplemented with different side mechanics. Now I might be a bit too excited, but I'll try to briefly explain the idea. Here is a picture of the prototype, the map is just plain hex:

The board contains:

Town: Small Square
Cities/Influence: Large Square
Armies: Small Cylinders
Capital: Large Cylinder
Ships: Missing on the picture.

The game is composed of 2 mechanics set, the core mechanics, and the side mechanics. I am going to talk here of the core mechanics only and the sides are up to you.

The idea of the core mechanics is to use a limited set of generic pieces mostly used to position geographically on the map elements. For example, I don't need the army of the composition on the map. I assume cities have and army, and that small cylinders are mobile armies used for attacking.

The components of the core mechanics must always remain the same, they could be replaced, like for example an Army can be replaced by a champion which has a stronger army, but it still behaves like an army.

Then you have actions. Now the biggest problem I had was to determine which mechanics is proportional to empire size and which mechanic is not proportional. Anything that is related to the control of space will have to be proportional with empire size as larger empires requires more actions to maintain that control. That is the "core mechanic system". The rest like tech research which affect the whole empire what ever it's size will be part of the "side mechanic system".

Players will get 1 action per city they control. These action can be distributed randomly as dice results or cards. I prefer cards as players can plan their next turn in advance. I defined 3 type of cards with each 2 or 3 actions (still in design) that can be done:

A- Civilization: Allows to place new towns, grow town as cities
B- Military: Allow placing armies on the board, move armies and attack. Possibly move fleets too.
C- Empire: Influence enemy cities, sabotage enemy cities, create diplomatic links, etc.

The possible actions of the core mechanics must always remain the same, if you add action though expansion, you dilute the actions over multiple choice. Also the actions will have to be performed in a specific order to prevent undesired combo like build a city, place a new army there and attack immediately with it.

Most of the actions aboves are obvious except influence which consist in replacing the large city square base of an opponent with your color. Indicating that even if you do not control the city, you have a certain influence on it politics, economics or just have a lot of spies which allow spreading influence further, or gain bonus for certain actions like attacking or sabotage.

Now this is the core mechanics, for now, all action are auto success for play test purpose. Players start with 3 cities, so start using 3 actions. They are close enough to each other on the map above that they could use all 3 categories of action right at the start. There is also no syndrome where players only do colonize in the first third of the game, and when everything is beefed up, they do other things as they don't have complete control on the actions they get and they start close enough to each other.


OK, simple enough but what about the side mechanics, now there is an infinity of possibility. For example, how to you resolve battles, well I decided that action cards has a value and certain upgrades or abilities could boost values that will determines the winner. But all those side mechanics stuff does not use any actions from the core mechanics. It's a separate game by itself, and having a small or larger empire does not affect it's efficiency.

So for example, in my game you draw 3 upgrade card per turn and chose 1. A bit like chosing a building in Endeavor. Now if your empire is made of 3 or 15 cities, you still draw 3 chose 1. And if a card gives you +2 strength in battle, the size of your empire does not matter. Larger empire will have more attack actions, but the bonus is the same.

But you could use a different system for combat resolution and it would still work. If you want to add more stuff and goodies like an expansion, it's must be done to the side mechanics.


Now This flexibility is very interesting as you can change all side mechanics if you want and still have the same core game. This could be useful for adapting the game to different theme, make variants and modifications, or simply make your own 4X game geared to your flavor. It could feel like those war game system reused for various historical battle, but with a clear separation.

It's almost an issue because I could create multiple games with the same theme and components using different side mechanics putting me in a situation where I am not sure which mechanic is best anymore. Or putting everything entirely modular (chose the modules you like) similarly to my original ideas I had in mind. You want more complex army management, then use those rules.


But what was bugging me all that time is the 1 action per city that I never though of using. Now the biggest issue is magic. There is 2 solution:

First, treat magic as technology upgrades, instead of seeing magic as a single spell or enchantment, see it as a series of upgrade to your empire, like equipping your army with enchanted weapons, instead of using an enchant weapon spell.

Second, Action card could be used as Action spell, which is an action with a special ability applied to it giving new capabilities. For example, you could have wind walking that make an move/attack action ignoring terrain.

So either a spell is a permanent ability like technology in civilization, or a powered up action if it affects core mechanics components. there would be no management of mana resources, and no magic nodes on the map as larger empire will influence the side mechanics which cannot happens.


I am not sure if what I am saying makes sense, I will be doing more test, and try to solidify the core mechanics. So I'll see if I can make a fun core game, by adding AI player and making a better map (yes, the game could maybe be playable solo. And then I might test some side mechanics.

It's really not a project I was expected to work on, but as all board game designer, we must constantly jump from a project to another. Ideas does not come in when you want it.

let-off studios
let-off studios's picture
Joined: 02/07/2011

This sounds like a great step forward for you and your designs. The idea of modular/separate side mechanics lends itself to expandability and lots of different campaign settings. Good on you for developing it.

Best of success to you on this project...and any others you happen to "constantly jump" to in the meantime. :)

larienna's picture
Joined: 07/28/2008
I have been thinking about

I have been thinking about it, and it feels like a "piece pack" but for 4X game. Or a 19XX game system, reusable for many game. Or war game systems like COIN and State of Siege.

It also seems to fit with the idea that many people want to play 4X games their own way. We see this in video game with tons of mods, or in the multitude of space opera board games.

What I am suggesting could be an unified 4X system and then people design or mod the game as they want to play it. So you could end up with a civ worker placement, civ card drafting or civ tile laying game while still sharing the same core mechanics for the control of space.

keirion's picture
Joined: 06/17/2016
larienna wrote:I have been

larienna wrote:
I have been thinking about it, and it feels like a "piece pack" but for 4X game. Or a 19XX game system, reusable for many game. Or war game systems like COIN and State of Siege.

It also seems to fit with the idea that many people want to play 4X games their own way. We see this in video game with tons of mods, or in the multitude of space opera board games.

What I am suggesting could be an unified 4X system and then people design or mod the game as they want to play it. So you could end up with a civ worker placement, civ card drafting or civ tile laying game while still sharing the same core mechanics for the control of space.

That would be really interesting. What if for a business model you created it as a base game concept that people would then pick say 2 'secondary mechanics' that then locked into the game to create the unique gameplay experience? It might feel a little bit like 504 but with a bit more of a focused experience. If you sold a base game with ~4 secondary mechanics in it and it did well you could even create expansions that specifically added additional secondary mechanics people could use.

larienna's picture
Joined: 07/28/2008
Well that's is an idea, I

Well that's is an idea, I could make an infinitely expandable game. Or just make it easy for people to plug in variants, Or I could do a simple and advanced mechanic set, but for now, at aim at something more simple to be able to fit everything I would like and have in a game playable in a reasonable amount of time with an average amount of components.

But the other idea, is being able to adapt the system to different theme. For example, if you are making a civ game, or a colonization of america game, you might want to focus the side mechanics on certain type of mechanics, or add/remove certain elements to the core mechanics to fit with your theme.

But the engine logic behind is still similar. For example, there is an 18XX game where trains fade out for a turn before disappearing. Even if other games does not have that mechanics in their core rules, it's still an 18XX game. So we could see slight modification to the core mechanics which is fine with me.


Now I worked on the idea a bit, look at my old notes, and figured out a few other interesting things:

The side mechanics could give a value in certain aspects like : Production, Strength, Prestige, Economy, Influence, etc.

Originally, I thought of matching the value to the action category: Civilization, Military, Empire. But the new idea is that each action in a category would use a different value which creates some sort of grid.

So for example Production could be used to grow cities as a civilization action, while it can be used to produce units as a military action. While attacking would require strength instead.

You simply add the value on the action card to the production or strength value to know the final value. This way, if your strength is low, not all your military actions are low.

Another idea is to make each card has a thematic event attached to it like "Bountyful harvest" that explains the value of the action card. But you could also get bad events, which are action card with a value of 0. Players could make certain action to force you to discard a card or your choice and replace it with a bad event card. Giving you more choice on how to handle the bad event. It's also less harmful than discarding an action card.


One of the main side mechanics I wanted to use is that you have 2 pack of 8 cards, one for the race and one for the wizard, which are shuffled together. Each turn you draw 3, chose 1 card from the stack and play it. Those are the advancements you can get which basically gives you special abilities or values. Having separate pack of cards for each race and wizard allows various configuration for unique game play. It's a bit like endeavor where you get 1 building per turn.

But now I want to make sure I have enough possible permutation to have that many unique or semi unique abilities. The core mechanics has a certain amount of possibilities for board status changes and rule breaking. But it might not be enough which will require affecting the side mechanics too.

Originally, This is one of the biggest problem, by trying to simplify the game to make it playable, you reduce the area of effect of possible special abilities, having the consequence of not being able to design enough special abilities.

I know that many civ game like clash of cultures, have very specific restriction on pieces manipulation, and the technologies simply breaks those rules. Still, If I have too few permutations, I might end up only giving values, but I would love to give a value and special ability.

I also though of having specific triggers, like an ability activates only when doing a specific action. So even as a numerical bonus, it does not apply all the time. This increases the number of permutations.

Anyways, that's it for now.

larienna's picture
Joined: 07/28/2008
New development I made this

New development I made this morning (It getting better):

There is currently cities, and armies on the map, I wanted a third group of pieces to have more options. I was thinking of something related to trading, economy, influence or diplomacy.

One thing I though is to put a token on hex corners the same way you place cities in Catan. It would represent an economic center which can be inland or on sea. The only additional restriction would be to have a clump of 3 cities.

Not sure exactly how they could be used, maybe they spread influence from there, or maybe if both players place their token in the same location it signifies a trading partnership. It would be interesting that political status is recorded on the map instead of a side board. It makes it easier to understand how to disturb political relations.


In Clash of Culture, and many other civ games, players tend to forget the special abilities they have given by technology. So the solution I want to use is that all asset cards will cost 1 gold or 1 mana to activate for a single action. This way since you are actively paying for an ability, you will remember which modifier to apply.

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