Thursday, March 13, 2014

Integrating theme with mechanics

I think it’s fair to say that every designer approaches the issue of “theme” in a slightly different way.  A game has to have theme, or else it’s just an excel spreadsheet with a random number generator.  But it’s also clear that some designers are willing to sacrifice thematic relevance for game mechanics.  Eurogames, classically, have been guilty of this.  Many Eurogames possess clever mechanics which interlace in fascinating ways – encouraging players to explore the gamespace and become proficient in manipulating the various levers and pulleys.  The thematic overlay is simply there to provide an attractive backdrop.

Lately, I’ve been playing some Alien Frontiers.  I like the game quite a bit, and everyone I’ve played it with has been quickly impressed with its intricate design.  I like how it combines dice-rolling, worker placement, resource management, and area control.  And I like the retro sci-fi look to the whole package.  But the two - mechanics and theme – are not intertwined in any meaningful way.  There is nothing about rolling doubles, for instance, that screams out, “build a new ship” – or rolling three in a row that evokes “raiding.”  The only minor exceptions to this lack of thematic integration are some of the alien artifacts, like the Plasma Cannon.  Because of this disparity between theme and mechanics, Alien Frontiers ultimately leaves me a bit cold.  Again, I like it – but it won’t ever be one of my favorites.

One of my guiding principles in designing Clockwork Wars was thematic integration.  I love steampunk, especially for how it flaunts anachronisms and envisions alternative histories.  I also think it has enormous potential to influence game design, since it’s so evocative and “culturally diverse.”  Let me see if I can explain this.

I knew early on that my best opportunity to weave theme into the game mechanics was within the Discovery cards.  Like in any good civilization game, I wanted the player’s personal narrative to unfold both within the realm of conquest and exploration, as well as technological discovery.  When you’re playing Civilization or Nations or Through the Ages, your civilization is largely shaped by what you research.  Now, setting a game in a steampunk universe opens up the technology tree in fun and unexpected ways.  Especially, if you also allow magic and sorcery in.  Now you can have a game where one player is researching Necromancy and Philosophy, while another player is developing Gunpowder and Dirigibles.

 But beyond the simple anachronistic pleasure of this, I wanted to ensure that each of the discoveries made mechanical sense.  As such, the specific rules for each discovery are very much guided by theme.  They are not arbitrary.  For example, the Dirigible lets you move units around the map and reinforce your battles easier.  The University helps you generate Influence Points faster.  Inquisition forces your opponents to discard sorcery and science influence.  Divine Right grants VPs for every Shrine you control at the end of the game.

Developing the discoveries was an interesting design process.  I did start with some guiding concepts.  I wanted sorcery discoveries to be aggressive, powerful, and relatively expensive.  I wanted science discoveries to provide flexibility.  Religion discoveries were defensive, often focused on enhancing your villages and shrines, and cheap.

Then I started making lists of “cool things” I wanted to include in my game.  Like dirigibles, and druids, and a colossus, and pestilence.  So I started with images – narrative – first.  Then, for each image, I tried to conceive of a mechanic that would make sense for that card.  I got surprisingly far using this approach.  Indeed, it was only later in development when I began looking through the rules for mechanics which were available to manipulate through new potential discoveries (in other words, starting with a mechanic and trying to find a theme to match it).  For example, once I came up with the idea of discovery tokens being placed on the map, I wanted there to be a discovery that could help you defend them.  Thus, the Golem (right) was born.

In contrast, I get the sense that a lot of games (even heavily thematic, “Ameritrash” games) are developed through spreadsheets.  Let’s use an imaginary game example.  Let’s say I’m developing a civilization game where there are 3 civilization “attributes”:  military, economy, and culture.  There are also 2 resources:  gold and science.  In this game, there are dozens of potential discoveries for the players to research.  For example, a discovery that gives you +1 military and costs 1 science to research.  It is now a simple matter to generate a spreadsheet and create all possible permutations.  You can even have very complex techs, like something that gives +5 military/+2 economy and costs 4 gold/6 science.  But it’s all numbers.  Once you have your list of permutations, you give a name to each one.  Cheaper ones might come from ancient times (like a granary, or polytheism), and more expensive ones from modern times.  But the thematic integration is bare-bones here.  You might be calling that +8 military card an aircraft carrier, but nothing about the card itself – or its effect on the game – has anything to do with a ship that carries jets.

I suppose I could have approached the design of Clockwork Wars' discoveries in that fashion, but it wouldn’t have been as fun – and it wouldn’t have created a thematically meaningful steampunk game.

The one major obstacle to creating game elements that consistently tie theme with mechanic is balance.  It’s (relatively) easy to balance cards, for example, generated from a spreadsheet. But when every card is different – and breaks the rules in fundamentally different ways from every other card – balance becomes a nightmare.  It’s been a major design challenge for me – one that I enjoy greatly – but one that is not easy to address.    For example, the late age Sorcery discovery, Necromancy says:
For every Shrine that you control at the beginning of the Recruitment Phase, you may recruit 2 additional workers.
What’s the value of this card?  How many Influence Points should it cost?  Is it a “better” card than the similarly priced Dirigible?  This part of game design feels uncomfortably like intuition at times, since play-testing can only reveal so much.  In one game, Necromancy might be used to great effect – in another, hardly at all.  So player feedback on its value will vary wildly.  Again, I really enjoy thinking about this kind of stuff, but it’s also a constant source of anxiety for me.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The evolving map: discovery tokens

I’d like to tell you about one rule in Clockwork Wars that makes every game different and interesting.

I’ve previously talked about the Discoveries in the game.  In every Age, there are 3 Discoveries available to research:  one based in Sorcery, one based in Science, and one based in Religion.  An example set from the Early Age might be:  Golem (Sorcery), Gunpowder (Science), and Monasticism (Religion).  These Discoveries are available for all players to research.  As such, they represent another point of competition and conflict of which all players must be constantly vigilant.  If you’re not careful, a wily opponent will research two different discoveries that have a powerful effect when played in concert (for example, Steam Train and Knighthood).

Discovery token (prototype)
When you research a discovery, you pay the necessary cost in Influence Points.  There is both a card and square cardboard token associated with each discovery.  You can place the card in front of you as a reminder of its special effect, but you must place the token somewhere on the map.  This token represents your actual discovery – in play.  As such, it now becomes a potential target for conquest.  If another player takes over the territory that holds the discovery, they will become the new owners.

I love this rule for so many reasons.  First, it creates a difficult and interesting choice for the player who makes the discovery.  They must decide where to put the token on the map.  They can place the discovery in their capital.  The advantage of this is that no player may ever attack another player’s capital, so the discovery will be safe for the rest of the game.  However, any one territory, including your capital, can only hold one discovery.  Let’s say you research Medicine – a powerful early age science discovery.  Do you place it in your capital, knowing that any subsequent discoveries you research – including the most powerful ones of the late age – will have to be placed in vulnerable locations on the map?  Or do you risk it by placing Medicine on the map?  If the latter, you better commit some of your valuable forces to defense of the territory.

When you can place the discovery on the map, it must be put in a research territory within the same "discipline."  Science discoveries must be placed on Manufactories.  Sorcery discoveries on Towers.  Religion discoveries on Shrines.  Furthermore, some Discoveries have powers which directly relate to their position on the map.  For example, the Catapult - an early age Science discovery - states:
During the Reinforcement stage, you may kill 1 enemy Soldier in any territory within two tiles of the Catapult.  Catapult may target its own territory.
This means that every map you play in Clockwork Wars will evolve in different strategic directions.  There’s already infinite replayability in how you set up the map itself, using 9 different terrains and any configuration your heart desires.  And then you add on top of this, players developing the map by deploying discoveries and radically shifting the value of individual hexes.

I recently played a game where I researched Soul Drain, an early age sorcery discovery, on Turn 3.  It’s a powerful card that says:
Whenever you win a combat versus a lone enemy Soldier, you gain 1 VP and may add a worker to your recruitment pool.  
I began using it to great effect over the next two turns (especially since it combos well with the Spymaster ability, Tactical Operations).  However, my opponents recognized the threat quickly and immediately began assailing the tower where I had the discovery stored.  I couldn’t keep it, while still expanding my empire, battling over court influence, and developing my villages.  So then one of my opponents took control of the tower and Soul Drain – and started using it against me the very next turn.  It was brutal!  Soul Drain changed hands a couple times that game, and every time it did it shifted the power-balance.  If you research something in Clockwork Wars, you have to be prepared to defend it.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Rules complete

Just a quick update today.  It's been a busy couple weeks with regards to Clockwork Wars.  We're in the home-stretch, trying to be 100% ready for the KS campaign - as well as generate some pre-campaign buzz via Facebook, BGG, etc.

I'd say at this point we've got about 50% of the art finished, but our artists are completing 2-3 pieces per week.  With over 50 cards in the game, each one featuring unique art, we knew it was going to be a time-consuming task from the beginning.  But I love the artists we're working with right now, and their enthusiasm is invigorating.

Graphic design work on the game-board, card layouts, and tokens is coming along nicely.  I'd say we're about 60% done there.

The best news is that I've submitted the rules to Eagle for translation into French and German.  In other words, I'm 99% confident that the bulk of rules writing and editing is complete.  I, and several other people, have gone over these rules dozens of times, and I think they're well-organized, clear, and complete.  If anything, I've erred on the side of making them too long and detailed.  I'd rather the rules be precise, without any holes or contradictions, and with plenty of gameplay examples. In terms of rules complexity, I consider Clockwork Wars a light-medium weight game.   For most strategy gamers who regularly play modern board games, the rules will be easily manageable.  On par with Memoir '44 (or really any of the Command and Colors series) or Conquest of Nerath, if you're familiar with those titles.  However, if Risk is the only strategy game you've ever played, CW might be a little overwhelming at first glance.  But I guarantee you that after a turn or two, you'll get the rhythm and be seeing the possibilities unfold.

We've got some new prototypes in the works and will continue play-testing, ensuring that the card balance and race balance, in particular, are just right.  That stuff is always hard (asymmetry is fun, but a pain-in-the-ass from a design standpoint), but I can promise you it's at the top of my mind.

Cheers, all.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Ritual of Blood

Today, I'd like to show off some art and also tell you a little more about how specific discoveries work in Clockwork Wars.  Here's the current art for the sorcery discovery, Ritual of Blood.


Pretty grim! Purebreed technowizards conducting nefarious experiments on some poor Mongrel captives.  I find a lot of steampunk art, especially in games, cartoonish or whimsical. We aimed for a slightly more mature style with Clockwork Wars and think we've achieved it. I love this piece and can't wait to show you more from the same artist. He's got a unique eye.

So how does Ritual of Blood work?  First of all, it's a sorcery discovery, which means that you need to collect sorcery influence points (IP) by controlling towers on the map.  Each turn, every tower that you control generates 1 sorcery IP.  Ritual of Blood costs 7 sorcery IP to purchase, which is relatively expensive.

In addition, Ritual of Blood is not available to research until the Late Age.  A game of Clockwork Wars lasts for 9 turns.  Turns 1-3 are the Early Age, turns 4-6 are the Middle Age, and turns 7-9 are the Late Age.  At the end of each age, there's a scoring phase where players earn victory points for any resources territories (Forests and Lakes) that they control.  The ages also determine what discoveries are available to purchase.

Let's say you planned things just right.  It's turn 7, you've got the first player token, and you have 7 sorcery IP tokens. When the research phase comes around, you can declare that you're "discovering" Ritual of Blood and take the card and its associated discovery token.  That token must be placed in either your capital or any tower that you control.  Discovery tokens represent the discovery itself - and they can be captured by your opponents.  If you place Ritual of Blood in a tower under your control, but then one of your opponents captures that tower on a subsequent turn, you will need to hand over Ritual of Blood to your enemy. Brutal!  However, a discovery placed in your capital can never be captured.  Unfortunately, any single territory, including your capital, can only ever hold one discovery.

So now you own Ritual of Blood.  What does it do for you?  Every research phase, you can activate it for the following effect:  for each Tower you control, you may kill up to 2 Soldiers in a single territory and gain 1 VP per Solider killed.

In effect, Ritual of Blood lets you attack your opponents anywhere on the map - AND get VP's for doing so. The more towers you control, the more powerful it is.  Imagine if you controlled 3 towers! You could kill 6 enemy soldiers per turn and get 6 VP every time you did so:  18 VP just from late age use of Ritual of Blood.  Almost certainly a winning strategy.  But if your opponents let you pull this off (by ceding control of so many towers), they deserve to lose the game.

From the beginning, I wanted discoveries to be real "game-changers."  They're not supposed to be subtle or slight.  They should change the landscape of the conflict in a significant fashion, create drama, and provide enormous advantage to those who research them.  As such, you ignore research and discoveries in Clockwork Wars at your peril.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The elevator pitch

What is Clockwork Wars?  More to the point, how is it different from other games out there?  Let me give you the quick elevator pitch!

Clockwork Wars (CW) is fundamentally an area control game.  I’m going to call it a hybrid, and what I mean by that is that it’s got both Ameritrash and Eurogame elements to it.  It’s a light war game with a thick veneer of theme, but it plays quickly and won’t consume your entire evening.  It’s got combat, but no dice.  It’s mostly area control, but there’s a little worker placement and a little area majority.  There's a tech tree, espionage system, four different races to play, and unique units - but the rules for everything have been streamlined, and there's virtually zero down-time between each of your turns.

Let’s talk about the area control. There’s a map that you deploy units to, and you earn Victory Points (VPs) for controlling certain strategic territories.  However, unlike a lot of area control games, the map is infinitely variable.  You will construct it at the beginning of every game out of hexagonal tiles that represent nine different territory types:  capitals, villages, citadels, towers, manufactories, shrines, forests, lakes, and barrens.  Now, you might guess that these territory types represent different “terrains” and that there are terrain modifiers that affect combat.  But you’d be wrong!  I think plenty of other games use that mechanic quite well (I’m a particular fan of Memoir ‘44), and I didn’t feel the need to use it in CW.  Instead, every territory that you control gives you a particular benefit.  Capitals and villages are for recruiting workers; towers, manufactories, and shrines are for generating research points (which I call Influence Points); and forests and lakes generate VPs.

Generating maps is a joy unto itself.  You can use one of the recommended maps for your player count which we include in the instructions, or make one up yourself.  The shape and size of the maps can vary enormously, and we hope people get excited about this aspect of CW and eventually share their creations with each other.

Each turn you’ll deploy units to the map.  You’ll engage in battles with other players’ units in an attempt to control key territories.  But again, CW offers some unique twists on this age-old formula.  First, unit deployment is hidden.  Players decide where they want to send their troops and write down their orders using a quick, simple system (each tile in the game has a unique identification number).  Then, all players reveal and perform their orders simultaneously.   This leads to an enormous sense of tension every turn, as you try and predict where your opponents will shift their military strength.  Second, once units are deployed to the map, they rarely move.  Consider the unit deployment in a game like Small World.  You’ve got to think carefully about your deployment decisions, because you can’t easily move your armies around.  However, control over a greater extent of the map opens up more deployment options for you.

Combat is simple and deterministic.  The tension of combat resolution isn’t generated by a random die roll, but rather by the hidden and simultaneous deployment.  Battles are resolved using a simple one-for-one rule but several other factors will come into play.  Battles can be reinforced by soldiers stationed at adjacent citadels.  Players can research discoveries, like Power Armor, that provide significant benefits in combat.  And players can also play espionage cards if they’ve invested a little in that system.  Most battles are resolved in seconds - but that doesn't mean there aren't tough decisions to make!  I'll admit that CW can sometimes be a bit of a brain-burner.  There are a lot of factors you need to juggle and every decision you make counts.

So if you find modern hybrid war games like Cyclades, Nexus Ops, Kemet, Chaos in the Old World, and even Tammany Hall attractive, I think Clockwork Wars is for you.  It’s very different from all the games I’ve mentioned, and I don’t think there’s anything out there currently that plays like it.  One final point I’d like to emphasize is that I think CW plays great (and quite differently) with 2, 3 or 4 players.  CW started its life as a 2-player game, and unlike a lot of modern area control games, it’s perfect for 2.  With 3 or 4 players, negotiations and deals can become part of the game, which of course tends to create a unique experience.  I think CW, because of its replayability, tight integration of theme with mechanics, and relatively short play-time, has broad appeal for people who like strategy games.

Want to learn even more?!  Read my ongoing design diary series:
[Diary #1: Overview]
[Diary #2: Espionage]
[Diary #3: Generals]

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Box Cover revealed!

I'm pleased to show off our current "draft" of the Clockwork Wars box cover art.


I love the detail in here.  We've tried to feature all four races:  Purebreeds, Mongrels, Rhinochs, and Troglodytes.  There's a bit of magic and a lot of guns.  

It's been a busy couple days, now that we've got some art to show off.  I've been updating our Facebook page, our BGG page, and doing a lot of constructive back & forth on marketing and such with the good folks at Eagle games.  It's finally starting to get "real"!  

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Clockwork Wars Design Diary #3: Generals

[Diary #1: Overview can be found here]
[Diary #2: Espionage can be found here]

Happy 2014!  If you’ve been following this blog or the development of Clockwork Wars at all, you may know that our original goal was to start our Kickstarter campaign before the end of 2013.  That time has come and gone, but I’m very comfortable with the decision.  Simply put, we’re just not ready to launch yet.  We’re still play-testing and tweaking rules, making major graphic design decisions, and plowing our way through art development for the tiles, cards, and possible minis.  Building a modern wargame is a big project, and as we all know nowadays, you shouldn’t launch a KS campaign until you’re absolutely ready.  We’d love to get a couple professional “beta-level” prototypes out there being previewed/reviewed just before launch and that also is going to take a little while.  I should be able to start previewing some of our magnificent art quite soon, and hopefully you’ll see me make a big announcement about the campaign itself in the next couple months.

 In the interim, I’d like to continue this series of designer diaries, providing some additional insight into the design and development of Clockwork Wars (CW).  Sometimes it’s hard for me to remember when or how some of the design decisions were made – I’ve been thinking about and working on CW for about 5 years now, so a lot of my memories of those early, formative stages are muddled and hazy.  I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this in an earlier post, but one source of inspiration for me for CW was real-time strategy (RTS) games on the PC.  For those that don’t know, what differentiates RTS games from more traditional turn-based “wargames” (like Civilization, or Panzer General, or Master of Orion) is the ability for the players to move their units simultaneously and in real time.  The primary advantage of this is that it allows for a much more fluid, dynamic, and surprising experience.  It’s easy to simulate feints, ambushes, and wars on multiple fronts.  The primary disadvantage, I think, is that it forces players to make decisions much more quickly and rewards fast-thinkers and fast-clickers perhaps too much.  Many of us who enjoy strategic games want the ability to ponder our decisions with leisure – to have a true “armchair general” experience.

When I first sat down with my original ideas for CW, I knew that I wanted to merge some of the benefits of traditional turn-based strategy with the excitement and surprise of real-time strategy.  Board games make this very possible.  A standardized turn structure (with no pre-set time limits on decision making) mean that players can ponder their decisions and think carefully about long-term strategy.  But simultaneous and hidden deployment (which I’ve blogged about previously) provides a much quicker pace and more realistic wartime simulation than “you go, I go.”

Another element I wanted to borrow from RTS was the idea of game-changing, special powers or uber-units.  One of my favorite RTS’s was The Battle for Middle Earth II (BFME II), based on Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings series of books.  An example of a special power in BFME II was summoning the Balrog.  You had to earn the Balrog power (through a small tech-tree), and since it was so advanced and expensive, you’d typically only get to use it once during the late-game.  But what a power!  Played at the right time, the Balrog could turn the tide of a major battle, and allow you to establish a significant foothold which could snowball into a scenario win.  I loved the strategy behind both researching the Balrog power, as well as knowing precisely when to activate it to gain the greatest advantage.

Summoning the Balrog - a dream come true!

In every game of Clockwork Wars, there are three uber-units available for any player to research.  These units are called the Generals, but they aren’t your traditional officers.  The Leviathan is the most straightforward of the three.  It’s a massive, demonic creature from the underworld that rises up to swallow an entire army.  To research the Leviathan, a player must spend 5 Sorcery and 2 Religion Influence Points – a significant investment, but one easily achieved by the mid-game.  Once you’ve researched the Leviathan, you can hold onto him - and then, when the time is right, activate him to maximum effect.  The Leviathan can be deployed at the end of any Reinforcement stage (so after all players have made their final reinforcement decisions and just before battles are resolved).  You deploy him to any battle you are currently engaged in.  The Leviathan instantly destroys any and all opposing units on the tile in question, leaving your units safe and in control.  In addition, you receive Victory Points equal to the number of enemy units destroyed. The Leviathan is then removed from the game; this is a one-time power.

I love the Leviathan, and he was definitely inspired by the Balrog, as well as the sandworms from Frank Herbert’s Dune.  He’s well-suited for an aggressive player who’s perhaps focused on controlling Towers and generating Sorcery IP.  He can be incredibly useful during a Scoring Phase, if you find yourself locked in a huge battle over a valuable Lake.  Or he can help you wrest control of a city from an opposing player, and therefore gain an important advantage in worker recruitment.

Another General available for research is the Guardian.  In my first prototypes, he was called the Paladin.  He’s the ultimate defensive unit.  For a price of 5 Religion IP and 2 Science IP, you can take the Guardian and, as with the Leviathan, wait until the right moment to deploy him.  You place him directly on a map territory that you currently control at the beginning of any Deployment Phase.  As long as the Guardian remains on that territory, it cannot be attacked.  That territory is permanently protected.  Even the Leviathan can’t attack the Guardian’s territory!

The third General available to research is the Steamtank.  A massive sentient machine sowing chaos and devastation.  The Steamtank is one of only two units in the game that can actually move every turn on the map.  After you research it (which costs 5 Science and 2 Sorcery IP), you immediately place it either in your Capital or a Citadel that you currently control.  The Steamtank has an Army Strength of 3 – so it’s basically equivalent to 3 Soldiers.  At the beginning of every Deployment Phase, you may move the Steamtank one tile in any direction.  It’s slow, but immensely powerful.  Your opponents will be hesitant to attack any territory that contains the Steamtank, and you can use the Steamtank to initiate crucial offensives into enemy territory.  The Leviathan can destroy the Steamtank in battle.

I’ve talked previously about the Discovery “tree” in CW.  During the set-up for each game, 9 different Discoveries are drawn (from 54 possible), 3 in each discipline (Sorcery, Science and Religion), and 3 for each Age (early, middle and late).  Thus, every game of CW will be different because you’ll always see a new combination of Discoveries to compete for and research.

However, the Generals are omnipresent.  There are always available to research in every game.  Don’t like what you see in the Discovery tree?  Focus on researching the Steamtank ASAP and get it out by turn 3 (which is entirely possible).  You might very well win yourself the game with such a bold move.  But a clever opponent will immediately start working towards researching the Leviathan to counter you – or the Guardian, to protect his most valuable territory.

Generals add yet another layer of strategic opportunity to Clockwork Wars.  You’ve got so many toys to play with!  Soldiers, Spies, Unique Units, Discoveries, Espionage cards, and Generals.  I hope that players see CW as more than just a hybrid area control game – it's also a sandbox that offers infinite strategic and narrative possibilities.