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Unusual variation on an empire-building game

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loserforsale
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Joined: 11/08/2011

As both a libertarian and a fan of strategic nation-building games such as Civilisation and Diplomacy, I am continually annoyed by the assumption that by acting as the government of your people you are somehow causing progress and development. As such, I aim to design a nation-building game in which activity is generally bad for you, but since players are still aiming to take over the world you will need to act at some point in order to win and a certain level of activity is required pretty much throughout in order to avoid being destroyed by other players.
My initial ideas for the project are as follows:

• Each player represents a group of influential citizens within one of a number of tribes, with each player dominating a different tribe. The players can collect Policy cards (on which more later) and they keep track of how much wealth is stored within their tribes’ economies.
• At the beginning of each turn, a player draws a Policy card. Cards would be divided up into eras – Prehistoric, Ancient, Classical, Medieval, Enlightenment, Industrial, and Modern perhaps? Each era would be a separate deck, and over time players would move up through the ages. Progress from one stage to the next would be achieved by drawing a particular Policy card; when a player draws this card, he replaces it in the deck, shuffles it, and from then onwards draws from the next deck up.
• At the end of each turn, a player’s Wealth increases. The more Wealth a player has relative to other players, the faster it will increase: I’m thinking that as a rough scale, all players start with 100 wealth, and increase each turn by (10%, minus 2% for each player with more wealth than them, to a minimum of 2% growth. Fractions are rounded down, but a player will always get at least an increase of 5 each turn).
• During their turn, players may play Policy cards. These would have varying titles and effects, e.g. establishing national health care (modern), anti-union legislation (any time between enlightenment and modern), etc. These will cost Wealth to implement, and in many cases the costs will tend to outweigh the benefits, particularly in the medium to long term; however, there should be a possibility to combine them and create effective combos.
• There would be a board, upon which players could keep military units and the buildings that they create using policy cards. I’m not certain how exactly the board or military system would work, neither of them seems a hugely important detail to begin with. This might be somehow randomly generated, since it would be likely to affect gameplay (e.g. access to certain resources might increase your wealth).
• As a possible tie-breaker if no-one can wipe out enough opponents to claim victory, there could also be a measure of how much you’ve managed to take advantage of your people for personal benefit, with the most corrupt player winning if a certain time or progress limit is reached, e.g. when technology becomes sufficiently advanced or people sufficiently peaceable for anarchism to be a workable system. Alternatively, when a Single World Government is established. Many cards would award Corruption points to a greater or lesser extent, with some such as construction of palaces giving plenty but not doing much else, while for others the corruption might be incidental to the main effect of the card.
• The number of Policy cards in a deck increases as the eras go by; when a Policy is used, it is returned to the bottom of the deck. Some policies would be ongoing; in these cases, the cards would be kept out but there would be several of the card available to be collected.
• Over time policies would tend to become more expensive and far ranging; you can still play cards from bygone eras that you have held on to, but they will be less powerful.
• Players can trade Wealth and cards; these might also be exacted as tribute from militarily inferior neigbours.

This is, of course, a very rough outline of gameplay, but I’d like to hear your thoughts and suggestions. It's probably best to avoid any discussion of the effects of individual Policy cards (in any case, in producing such a game I would aim to include as wide a range of policies from as wide a range of political viewpoints as possible) in order to avoid a flame war, but what do people think of the mechanics of the game? Could anyone provide ideas for a military system or map type that might work well with this?

BlueRift
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Some Suggestions

I like a good empire building game but I do have some points to help you along your way.

loserforsale wrote:
As such, I aim to design a nation-building game in which activity is generally bad for you, but since players are still aiming to take over the world you will need to act at some point in order to win and a certain level of activity is required pretty much throughout in order to avoid being destroyed by other players.

Are you making a game that punishes players for doing things? Political concerns aside, this might not be the best route to go.

loserforsale wrote:
The more Wealth a player has relative to other players, the faster it will increase

This sounds like it will have a runaway leader problem. Most games go the opposite route and make the loser get bonuses. There are other ways to curb a leader but it also sounds like a complicated way to figure out how much money you make.

If you want to make a political statement in a game (which is definitely fair game) you might want to make the scope more limited. It might be easier to portray positives and negatives of government interaction in a set political environment like a "Roman Senate" or "Modern Republic" setting.

Grall Ritnos
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Joined: 02/07/2011
Giving players what they want

Hi loserforsale. I think you're tapping into some very interesting mental space with this idea. The idea of negative reinforcement for taking action does raise a lot of interesting questions about how a game might be assembled. Unfortunately, interesting mental space does not always translate into a fun game. There is a maxim in game design, which I first encountered in the column of Magic the Gathering lead designer Mark Rosewater, that if a designer regularly asks a player to do something counter to what he or she wants or expects, the designer is in for an uphill battle. Relative to your game, I would contend that players want and expect to take actions. While I understand the logical and idealistic motivations behind this idea, and find them interesting, I think the idea of a game which devolves into a staring contest, with the first player to blink being placed at a disadvantage, sounds like a frustrating and boring exercise (though I do know that some players enjoy the mental challenge of this style, i.e. Draw-Go control style Magic players). I'm not trying to suggest that this is necessarily true of your current idea, but it sounds dangerously close. I do elso want to echo BlueRift's concern about the run-away leader issue.

This is not to say that your core idea is without merit. While encouraging inaction will require overcoming player tendencies, I think it could be possible to craft a game where players are forced to make meaningful decisions each turn, and the decision to take no action may present significant benefits. The one idea that jumps to my mind is for some form of external threat to be present, which the players must contend with turn by turn. Dealing with threats consumes resources, which limits future growth, but failing to defend against threats bears its own consequences. Thus, the most effective player will be the one who can take the fewest actions, while still avoiding the consequences of failing to defend his or her empire. This type of system creates an interesting, active game state while still encouraging minimalist game play. I'm sure this is not the only way to tweak your idea in order to create a more dynamic and engaging game state, but I would strongly encourage you to consider ways by which players can be drawn into the game, while still rewarded for conservative decision making.

kos
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Joined: 01/17/2011
External stimulus

I agree with the comments about having an external stimulus (e.g. threat) that requires action, and also about constraining the scope.

For example, imagine a game which mirrors the colonisation of North America by the Europeans. (Whether using a historical setting or an alternate earth is irrelevant to the mechanics, but I'll use real-world names for now.) Each player controls a newly established colony in the New World. The colonies start individualistic (as indeed, most of the American colonials were at the start) rather than united.

Threats could come in the form of natural disasters, disease, hostile natives, aggressive European nations, internal revolts, and the actions of the other Colonies. Opportunities could come from friendly natives, natural resources, European trade, etc. Dealing with these short-term threats may require the creation of long term institutions (e.g. armies, government, etc) which creates long-term drains on the populace long after the threat has been neutralised. Thus, the way to win is to overcome the threat while creating the least amount of bad stuff as a legacy for your colony. If I understand it, this is kind of what you are trying to show in your game.

Along the same lines, players may be faced with choices such as "Sign the Land Tax Law to gain 2 territories and 2 corruption OR Empower free settlers to gain 1 territory." Forming alliances/treaties with other Colonies may give strategic bonuses but at the cost or ongoing corruption.

Back to your original questions, I wonder whether moving armies around the board is even necessary. Moving armies around the board may just slow down the game, make it more complicated, and make it look more like Risk. Armies could alternatively be represented as a generic military strength (like Soldier cards in Settlers) which has an impact on (and is impacted by) various Policy cards.

For example, say I have 4 Army cards in play. I currently have in play an Indian Raiders card (requires 2 armies) and a Local Unrest (requires 1 army), which leaves me only 1 army spare. I know that if somebody plays European Aggresssion (requires 3 armies) on me I'm in big trouble, so I consider spending the cash to raise more armies to defend my territory -- along with the subsequent corruption and upkeep costs.

Good luck with your idea. It is an interesting departure from the "Gain territory so you can build more armies to gain more territory" form of game.

Regards,
kos

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