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Suggestions on Making a Semi-Cooperative Space Empire Game Work

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DarkDream
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I have been working on a semi-cooperative space empire 4x type game for some time now. A central element I want in the game is a political module where players would need to work together (an interstellar Senate) for the best of the entire group while still having their own individual goals. To get more of a concrete idea of what I envision, please see these posts:

http://www.bgdf.com/forum/game-creation/design-theory/ideas-cooperative-...

http://www.bgdf.com/forum/game-creation/mechanics/sci-fi-4x-cooperative-...

After play testing the game, it became apparent that there were a couple of problems with it:

1) The core engagement (part of the game that appealed to my play tester) was not the Senate phase but the part of the game involved with exploring, colonizing and so on.
2) The open nature of the Senate phase where players could offer proposals did not work. My play tester would always take a selfish approach and never collaborate for the good of the entire group of players. For example, when an enemy was attacking my colony I tried to pass a motion that required all members to help out. He voted against it even though he recognized if it destroyed me, it would go ahead and attack him. His attitude was he was ok with this as long as the enemy killed me first.

This incident attests to the difficult beast of semi-cooperative games where players will always choose themselves over others if there is not proper mechansims in place to prevent it.

In short, I am looking for a concrete set of mechanics that greatly encourages collaboration and serves the core engagement which is players collecting resources, colonizing, building units and so on. Ideally, this would be framed in a context of each player representing a different faction with different political agendas where voting is used to push through such agendas.

One hint I have gleaned to make semi-coops work is that any reward or punishment needs to effect the entire group.

The best example I can find of a semi-coop that seems to work well is the "Dead of Winter" where Crisis cards indicate what goals the survivers must meet together or otherwise suffer a consequence that effects all (lowering of morale, for example).

Drawing some inspiration from this, here is a brief outline of my thoughts so far.

1) Two types of cards, Event Cards (for example, a plague hits a planet, or a super nova explodes) and Faction/Senate Objective Cards (an objective to discover a new technology, an objective to colonize X more planets, mine asteroids and so on) have a collective reward or punishment.
2) A collective punishment could effect a happiness rating which applies to all players where a failure to fulfill the requirements could result in the collective happiness going down which could result in strikes and so on.
3) The collective punishments or rewards would be specified on each card. Besides harming or awarding all players, it could also individually benefit some players more than others (to also increase competition). So, for example, in a collective project which requires research to find a cure for a plague, the player who contributed the most reseach would gain a special extra award.
4) Event Cards would be generated in a fairly random fashion (never know when a plague all of a sudden hits).
5) Faction/Senate Objective Cards need to be generated on every game turn or round to set the stage (like revealing a Crisis Card at the start of a Player turn phase in the "Dead of Winter.").

Within this brief outline I want to fill in the details and especially flesh out part (5) on how the Senate Objective Cards are generated.

Obviously, the Senate Objective Cards could be drawn randomly but I do not like this idea. For example, you could be approaching the end game and a card shows up that talks about colonizing which does not fit the current state of the game. It would be nice somehow the cards are tied to the state of the game. For example, in the beginning of the game, the Senate Objective cards would be more on exploring and colonizing rather than the end game involved with exterminating.

I would also somehow like to tie the cards with each individual faction and some sort of Senate voting mechanism. For example, each player's faction has a preference for some sort of activity (industrialists like building, militarists like attacking and so on) and each player would pick a couple a cards corresponding to their faction's preference and select one to try to push in the Senate to be voted upon.

Any ideas to flesh this outline out and suggest some concrete mechanics towards that end would be appreciated.

Thanks.

--DarkDream

let-off studios
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Suggestions

Based on what you indicated here, I have a couple suggestions.
- Streamline the aspects of the game that you don't want to have as the core engagement. Automate some parts of it, based on decisions/aspects of the game connected to the Senate deliberations/debate you want to emphasize. In this way, you make the effect of the core engagement significant to the rest of the game.

- To prevent players sacrificing others for self-preservation, make sacrifice and compromise essential. In Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert, all players lose if one player is incapacitated. In your game, if one faction is eliminated, then the entire Senate structure is dissolved and mass chaos erupts throughout the galaxy or whatever.

These are INCREDIBLY general, and I didn't read through the other threads you cited, but hopefully they're useful to apply to your outline.

saluk
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In a sense you are looking

In a sense you are looking for the holy grail. Even dead of winter has its many detractors because of these mechanics specifically. Reducing the gameplay you dont want to be a focus and bringing in more varied goals is probably a good start.

You have noticed that players only make the choices they are incentivized to. In your example, your friend was incentivized more to hurt you than to prevent the threat from going. In some ways this matches what might happen in the real world equivalent of the situation. "Players" in the real world tend to act based on incentive and short term gain as well.

Is there anything in the game which would have allowed you to convince him to help you out? If not, maybe there need to be more concrete ways for players tonegotiate.

larienna
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There are a couple of similar

There are a couple of similar games that works like that. I think one of them is "republic of Rome", where each player is a senator in a crumbling empire. They must make sure the empire survives while fulfilling their own interest. But if they take too much risk, the whole empire will crumble.

DarkDream
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Good Responses

Guys,

Thanks for your responses.

let-off studios wrote:
Based on what you indicated here, I have a couple suggestions.
- Streamline the aspects of the game that you don't want to have as the core engagement. Automate some parts of it, based on decisions/aspects of the game connected to the Senate deliberations/debate you want to emphasize. In this way, you make the effect of the core engagement significant to the rest of the game.

Good suggestion.

let-off studios wrote:
- To prevent players sacrificing others for self-preservation, make sacrifice and compromise essential. In Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert, all players lose if one player is incapacitated. In your game, if one faction is eliminated, then the entire Senate structure is dissolved and mass chaos erupts throughout the galaxy or whatever.

Yes. A mechanism that incentives collective play is essential. This is one way of doing it.

larienna wrote:
There are a couple of similar games that works like that. I think one of them is "republic of Rome", where each player is a senator in a crumbling empire. They must make sure the empire survives while fulfilling their own interest. But if they take too much risk, the whole empire will crumble.

Yes. I have the "Republic of Rome" and have tried to mine its treasures. I think the key of how itworks is that you continually are having to face game-ending challenges, and if they are not adequately addressed, will cause the game to end very quickly. It thus forces players to collaborate; if they risk too much individually, they end up all loosing. I will maybe have to look at it some more.

saluk wrote:
In a sense you are looking for the holy grail. Even dead of winter has its many detractors because of these mechanics specifically. Reducing the gameplay you dont want to be a focus and bringing in more varied goals is probably a good start.

Yes. It is a difficult problem. I have some ideas on a possible new approach (see below). Tell me what you think.

Yes, bringing more varied goals and reducing gameplay you don't want focus on is good advice.

saluk wrote:
You have noticed that players only make the choices they are incentivized to. In your example, your friend was incentivized more to hurt you than to prevent the threat from going. In some ways this matches what might happen in the real world equivalent of the situation. "Players" in the real world tend to act based on incentive and short term gain as well.

Is there anything in the game which would have allowed you to convince him to help you out? If not, maybe there need to be more concrete ways for players tonegotiate.

Yes. I could have paid off my brother offering money or resources. Those type of things may be an option. However, I felt even then a player could just be selfish without sacrificing anything. With a theme of a Federation of Galactic Senate I want to be able to reduce that type of behavior to a certain degree.

One interesting suggestion I have had, is players loose or win separately. So at the end of the game all can loose, all can win or some can win and others loose. Now the interesting thing is that in order for an individual player to win, he or she must attain at *least* a certain amount of points to win.

Idea behind this is that an action can equally harm and help *all* players as a group. For example, destroy an invading space amoeba and all players get +10 points. If the space amoeba kills a population on a planet in the republic then all players suffer -10 points.

The only problem I can see with this suggestion, however, is that even with players trying to reach at least X amount of points, a player who is way below that threshold of points to win may start trying to sabotage things so to stop the other players winning (idea is if I can't win I will make everyone else loose so we are all equal).

The reason a player may want to do this even when they have individual points is that points awarded to those players who are near reaching their goal are of greater value than the player who is far behind (most likely not reach the goal to win individually) and thus will want all others to loose. If that sabotage player has the ability of easily tanking the game for all the players, then it will most likely happen.

I think all these problems can be mitigated by:

1) Making it hard for players to have the ability to cause the game to fail (do not have a collective morale track, for example).
2) Players should have hidden personal goals that individually earns them points or other means of obscuring the total amount of points any other player has at one time. Also possibly not knowing the exact threshold amount needed to win until the end may help obscure the winning status of all players.
3) Sabotage behaviour can be mitigated further by combining a collective award and individual punishment. For example, if there is a plague hitting and all players are required to contribute resources to resolve it and one player refuses to contribute, that player will be individually punished by loosing points while the group of players who finally resolve the plague all get equal awards of points.
4) The player that is continually trying to sabotage can be voted out and not have any say anymore in collective actions.

What do you guys thing?

--DarkDream

Supafrieke
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I feel like you might be

I feel like you might be worrying about spoilers and saboteurs a bit prematurely. If the core mechanisms are not encouraging the kinds of play you envisioned, they should be addressed holistically and not piecemeal.

You mentioned earlier that the "open negotiations" version of the senate phase wasn't working and I'm wondering if that was because the players start of the game as their own entity.

I haven't played "Republic of Rome" but watching a summary video gave me some ideas...

1) The players are only parts of a pan-galactic or multi-solar empire; each playing a political faction of the larger entity. The player might represent their faction through colored discs or cubes that can co-habitate on planets, and in general are counted together when figuring out most population numbers. (So red and blue together give a planet a large vote count, but blues majority gives him control of the vote ~ electoral collage, yay!)

2) Players would never be allowed to directly attack each other, and due to sharing many planets, they mostly are threatened as sub-groups of the empire, and almost never as individuals. (A plague in sector 5 might endanger both yellow and red, but blue can't live on those types of planets.)

3) Players after voting, would each need to take on some role of the empire in order to carry out the "will of the senate". So after passing some referendums and electing a leader, that leader would hand out specific roles for other players, Admiral, Economist, Scientist, Industrialist. These roles would be in charge of moving fleets, setting/collecting taxes, assigning research, and spending resources. (So players might be influenced to vote because they think they can lobby the leader for control of that sphere of work.)

4) Crisis and Senate cards not only have empire-wide effects, but they may also allow players to take specific additional actions to score some extra points. (Maybe after building a fleet, players may pay any extra minerals on their planets to build additional trade vessels; boosting their income that turn.)

5) Have hidden goals that can be scored when conditions are met; and a new goal acquired. (Yellow has influence on 6 planets, scores 5 points, and draws another goal card to try and fulfill.)

DarkDream
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Thanks for the Input

Supafrieke,

Thanks for the comments.

Supafrieke wrote:
I haven't played "Republic of Rome" but watching a summary video gave me some ideas...

1) The players are only parts of a pan-galactic or multi-solar empire; each playing a political faction of the larger entity. The player might represent their faction through colored discs or cubes that can co-habitate on planets, and in general are counted together when figuring out most population numbers. (So red and blue together give a planet a large vote count, but blues majority gives him control of the vote ~ electoral collage, yay!)


Currently right now in the game individual players represent one faction and have their own counters. However, right now players (factions) cannot share population counters with other factions. That is, all systems can only be owned by one faction and all population counters are of the same faction. I did not think of possibly sharing systems. It is definitely an interesting idea I will think about.

Supafrieke wrote:
2) Players would never be allowed to directly attack each other, and due to sharing many planets, they mostly are threatened as sub-groups of the empire, and almost never as individuals. (A plague in sector 5 might endanger both yellow and red, but blue can't live on those types of planets.)

Currently, in the game players cannot attack each other. A good point you make here is that if you have multiple factions sharing a same planet then a crisis will effect a subset or full set of the total compliment of players increasing collaboration on dealing with threats.

Supafrieke wrote:
3) Players after voting, would each need to take on some role of the empire in order to carry out the "will of the senate". So after passing some referendums and electing a leader, that leader would hand out specific roles for other players, Admiral, Economist, Scientist, Industrialist. These roles would be in charge of moving fleets, setting/collecting taxes, assigning research, and spending resources. (So players might be influenced to vote because they think they can lobby the leader for control of that sphere of work.)

All good ideas, but with a 4x type game I am trying to keep the political dimension as minimal as possible. Right now I was just thinking of having one office of the Consul.

Supafrieke wrote:
4) Crisis and Senate cards not only have empire-wide effects, but they may also allow players to take specific additional actions to score some extra points. (Maybe after building a fleet, players may pay any extra minerals on their planets to build additional trade vessels; boosting their income that turn.)
Interesting thoughts. Instead of extra actions, maybe some particular Senate cards have icons which benefit certain factions more in that if it passes they can get extra bonus points.

Supafrieke wrote:
5) Have hidden goals that can be scored when conditions are met; and a new goal acquired. (Yellow has influence on 6 planets, scores 5 points, and draws another goal card to try and fulfill.)

Yes. Hidden goals or objectives is a good idea to make decisions more interesting if their hidden objective conflicts with the group objective, and can also lead to interesting dynamics with other players who share or have conflicting private goals. Also a good way to obscure the relative point balance between players.

Thanks for the thoughts.

--DarkDream

The Professor
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Common Foe

Dark Dream,

As was mentioned earlier, most expressly by larienna, is the idea of an outside force/actor which necessarily demands collaboration on the players' part. For our first publication, which serves as the first 4X cooperative space game, we created a series of crises which are slowly rending apart the very fabric of the system within which the players' races live. Yes, they need to pursue, to their best ability, their own self-interests, but to do so without a focus on "eXterminating" the threat will lead to everyone's demise.

Cheers,
Joe

ElKobold
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I think in order for

I think in order for semi-coop to work, every player must be confident that he is about to win (or at the very least has a very high chance of winning).

Otherwise, most players won't contribute to the common goal.

DarkDream
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Good Points

The Professor wrote:
As was mentioned earlier, most expressly by larienna, is the idea of an outside force/actor which necessarily demands collaboration on the players' part. For our first publication, which serves as the first 4X cooperative space game, we created a series of crises which are slowly rending apart the very fabric of the system within which the players' races live. Yes, they need to pursue, to their best ability, their own self-interests, but to do so without a focus on "eXterminating" the threat will lead to everyone's demise.
Yes. Thanks Joe. Right now every game turn there is a new Event Card that is added to a queue which can effect the various systems. Space Amoebas, pirates, plagues, meteor storms and so on.

As you pointed out, it is key that you have a constant series of threats which threaten all players to incentivize collaboration.

ElKobold wrote:
I think in order for semi-coop to work, every player must be confident that he is about to win (or at the very least has a very high chance of winning).

Otherwise, most players won't contribute to the common goal.


Excellent point. All players must have the impression (regardless if it is actually true or not) that they have a chance. The best way to accommodate this is to obscure what each player's point total is. One way is by having secret objectives and for those points to still be lost (only at the end of the game they are counted).

Thanks,

DarkDream

larienna
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There are 2 other games that

There are 2 other games that comes to my mind:

Struggle of the galactic empire: A solitaire game where you need to face many threath.

Shadow over camelot: Here the players are questing, but that could be replaced by "I am using my fleet to fight and incoming threat". It's a kind of questing. So there is that I idea of moving to an assignment and returning to the capital.

The Professor
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Great Point...larienna

Shadows Over Camelot provides an excellent example of a cooperative game in which everyone's independent actions contribute to the common good...and success. As to larienna's point, you could have individuals launch their ships against a common foe...and I would suggest incentivizing the decision, as well.

Supafrieke
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While I suggested the same, I

While I suggested the same, I would lean away from individual rewards and toward more "natural" systems for getting players involved in the senate phase.

Sharing territory is one way to ensure players are presented with opportunities to form alliances to vote in certain ways.

Another way might be to have seperate resources, and to have everyone vote on which resource will be demanded for taxes. They each pay from their own stocks and those without the required types will have to pay more as a penalty.

Or use the secret goals to encourage voting for or against certain types of laws.

In any event, use the natural flow of the game to encourage alliances instead of just granting points as an added bonus to passing or blocking votes.

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