Saturday, June 8, 2013

Clockwork Wars Designer Diary #1: Overview

I’d like to use this entry to introduce you to my current board game design, Clockwork Wars.  The design and production of this game is being supported by Eagle games, and we’ll be launching a Kickstarter campaign for it later this year (hopefully! such things can be hard to predict, and we won’t launch until we’re ready).  Unfortunately, I can't show off some of the excellent graphic design and art-work that will be featured in the game quite yet - but stay tuned.

Clockwork Wars is a medium-weight wargame for 2-4 players set in a fantasy-steampunk world.  In Clockwork Wars, you take command of one of five races of creatures: the calculating Purebreeds (humans), the industrious Troglodytes (ape-men), the mighty Rhinochs (rhino-men), the proud Mongrels (dog-men), or the marvelous Inventions (sentient machines).  Each race possesses a powerful “unique unit” that reflects their racial personality and strategic slant.  For example, the Troglodytes’ unique unit is the Engineer, which allows for faster research, whereas the Rhinoch’s unique unit is the Crasher, a powerful siege engine.

Before you start a game of Clockwork Wars, you build a map using hexagonal tiles that feature nine different types of terrain:  capitals, villages, citadels, towers, manufactories, shrines, lakes, forests, and barrens.  Each terrain type has a specific function and controlling certain territories is fundamental to winning the game.  Depending upon the number of players in the game, you’ll use anywhere from 25 to 40 tiles.  While we provide some sample maps in our instruction booklet, I hope that players quickly move onto designing their own unique maps – or even randomly generating them (for which we provide some simple guidelines).  As such, every game of Clockwork Wars will be different, forcing players to adapt to the strategic possibilities their surroundings offer.

Clockwork Wars uses a Victory Point (VP) system.  The game lasts for seven turns and there are scoring phases on turns 2, 4, and 7.  The player with the most VPs at the end of the game wins.  Players primarily collect VPs from controlling resource territories:  lakes and forests.  However, there are other ways of earning VPs, especially through research.

The research system in Clockwork Wars was a blast to design, and it’s the aspect I’m most proud of.  It’s important to me as a designer that theme and mechanics are coherently meshed in my games, and the place where this principle shines through most effectively in Clockwork Wars is the research system.  The 7 turns of the game are divided into 3 ages:  the Early Age (turns 1-2), the Middle Age (turns 3-4), and the Late Age (turns 5-7).  These ages are meant to reflect long periods of time – several centuries for each age - time for new and significant inventions to have a large impact on society and especially the ongoing war.  Within each Age, there will be three different Discoveries available for players to research.  These Discoveries fall into one of three different research domains:  sorcery, science, and religion.  This is a world where science, sorcery, and fundamentalist religious doctrine exist side-by-side and are often at conflict with one another.  Thematically, I was heavily influenced by dark, modern steampunk settings, like China Mieville's world of Bas-Lag and even the classic computer RPG, Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura.  

Sorcery discoveries are typically the most expensive and powerful in the game. They often let you do direct damage to your opponents, killing their soldiers at no risk to your own.  For example, Ritual of Blood allows you to kill enemy soldiers anywhere on the map.  If you like to play aggressive, Sorcery is for you.  Science discoveries will often increase your recruitment, enhance the strength of your armies, or provide you with additional means of generating VPs (like the Analytic Engine).  If you like flexibility and intimidating research engines, Science is for you.  Religion discoveries are the most affordable.  Many are defensive in nature or allow you to take further advantage of villages, cities, forts, and shrines.  For example, the Late Age religion Discovery Infallibility makes it so that your opponents can no longer attack your villages and cites.  If you want to field a larger army on the field (because you don't have to invest workers in research as much), along with strong defensive capabilities, Religion is for you. There will be over 40 different Discoveries in the box, but you'll only use 9 (randomly chosen) in each game.  This is another means of ensuring infinite replayability.

To research Discoveries, you need to earn Influence Points (IPs) in those three respective domains.  Sorcery IPs are earned by controlling towers, Science IPs are earned by controlling factories, and Religion IPs are earned by controlling shrines.  As soon as you have enough IPs in the appropriate domain to buy a Discovery, you can do so.  But there’s often a race between players for these powerful Discoveries.  All the Discoveries in the game have been designed to be potential “game-changers” – especially the Middle and Late Age Discoveries.  The player who researches most efficiently and effectively is often the player who wins the game - typically this means dipping into all three research domains, since nothing's forcing you to choose only one path.  The most effective civilization is the one that utilizes the strengths of many paradigms.

But we still haven’t addressed how players gain control of territories.  Each turn of Clockwork Wars is divided into five rapid phases:  the Spymaster Phase (which I’ll discuss in a future entry), the Recruitment Phase, the Deployment Phase, the Combat Phase, and the Research Phase.  Additionally, as I mentioned earlier, turns 2, 4, and 7 also have a Scoring Phase that follows the Research Phase.  Generally speaking, we've found that individual turns last between 5 and 10 minutes.

During the Recruitment Phase, players simultaneously collect (recruit) Workers.  Simply having a capital, which can never be captured, allows you to recruit 4 Workers.  For every village you control, you recruit an additional 1 Worker, and for every city you control, you recruit an additional 2 Workers.  The Recruitment Phase is very fast – players usually need just a few seconds.  Once all players have recruited their Workers, the turn progresses to the Deployment Phase.

During the Deployment Phase, players secretly decide where they want to place Workers on the map.  Each player writes down their deployment orders on a specially designed pad for this purpose.  Once all players have made their decisions, they simultaneously reveal and resolve their deployment orders, moving Workers to territories on the map.  There are a few simple rules which dictate which territories you can deploy to – generally speaking, you can deploy to territories that you currently control or which are adjacent to ones you control.  Once Workers have been deployed to the map, they are called Soldiers.  If more than one player deploys Soldiers to the same territory, a battle will occur in the subsequent Combat Phase.

The Deployment Phase is really the meat of the game.  This is where all your planning, strategizing, and guesswork come into play.  Which territories do you want to control?  Factories, so that you can gather more Science IPs?  Citadels, so that you have greater maneuverability during the Combat Phase?  Forests and lakes, so that you can score VPs?  And, perhaps more importantly, where do you think your opponents will be deploying their Soldiers?  I’ve always loved games that feature secret and simultaneous combat deployment – it always feels more tense, exciting and realistic to me.  Plus, there’s the advantage of no down-time, a problem endemic to most Dudes-on-a-Map games.  I suspect most gamers have had that frustrating experience of waiting and waiting until their turn comes around again when they are actually allowed to have fun.  It was a fundamental design principle of Clockwork Wars to avoid this flaw.

During the Combat Phase, players resolve battles.  The rules of battle resolution are uncluttered and deterministic.  Players simply compare Army Strengths.  Army Strength is primarily determined by the number of Soldiers you have on the territory.  The player with the highest Army Strength wins – but has to lose Soldiers equal to the next highest player’s Army Strength.  So, if Olivia, Spencer, and Ryan each have 3, 1, and 4 Soldiers, respectively, in a battle, Ryan would win and 1 of his Soldiers would survive.  All other Soldiers are killed.  While battle resolution is fundamentally simple, there are several additional factors that might influence the outcome.  Numerous Discoveries can increase the effectiveness of your Soldiers.  For example, Power Armor (a Middle Age science discovery) gives you a +1 bonus to Army Strength in all battles.  I mentioned the unique units earlier – and some of these unique units are more powerful than the average Soldier.  In addition, players can “reinforce” a battle by moving Soldiers from an adjacent citadel that they control.  This is one of the few ways in Clockwork Wars that Soldiers can move – typically, once a Soldier has been deployed to the map, it stays on that territory until killed.  Finally, you can play a one-time-use Espionage card, which could let you set an ambush or force your opponents to desert the field of battle before it even begins.

As a game of Clockwork Wars progresses, players will quickly take control of particular sections of the map, focusing their strategy.  One player whose capital is near a couple towers might capture them quickly so as to start generating Sorcery IPs immediately.  Such a research advantage can be immensely useful in the late-game.  Another player might concentrate on conquering villages and developing them into cities (which is as simple as having 3 or more Soldiers on a village tile).  This will provide greater worker recruitment in subsequent turns, which can be parlayed into a larger army and dominance of the entire map.  The maps in Clockwork Wars are tight – battles will begin to happen on Turn 1 or 2 and won’t let up until the end of the game.  It’s like a knife-fight in a phone booth – there just isn’t a lot of room to expand without conflict and very limited and enormously valuable resources in nearly every direction.  If you’ve played the excellent Nexus Ops with 4 players, you’ll have a sense of how Clockwork Wars feels.

There are a number of additional rules and mechanics I haven’t discussed, including Espionage, Attrition, and the great Generals, but I’ll save those for future entries.  Hopefully, what I’ve written here gives you a broad overview of how a game of Clockwork Wars plays.  It’s quick, it’s tense, it’s strategic, and most importantly, it’s fun.  Well, at least I think so! 

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