Friday, March 02, 2007

The Natural Migration of Sea Monsters

My definition of a game is broader than the typical game geek. It is, simply, "a set of rules the paticipants agree to follow for primarily their enjoyment." This pretty much encasulates things like Chutes and Ladders and slot machines, which the geeks would disallow since there is no control over the game, and things like Rubik's Cubes and The Sims, which geeks would argue are toys.

Anyway, games are pretty much rules with parts. It is up to the other players in the game to provide the competition. The game, itself, usually doesn't provide any competition, aside from getting screwed by a bad random event. The standard bearer for this seems to be the "Settlers of Catan bad dice roll syndrome." But even that, I don't really consider to be "competition," the game is just doing it's thing; it's not out to get you. That's the odds.

To make a long analysis short, since board games really can't do the artificial intelligence (coming up with a battle plan or strategy based on player actions) like a computer game, it's generally hard to pull off any some of semblance of "Game versus Player." But they can do something that I have termed, for lack of something better, "Automatic Intelligence" (or a.I. for short). This is basically where a game is pre-programmed, or in the case of a board game, somehow designed, to get harder or more challenging as the players progresses. Since the game can't do much in terms of creating alternate stratagems to whatever the player is doing, all it (and it's designer) can do is make educated guesses that at certain points in the game, the player will be at a strength of X and therefore the game needs to somehow combat this at some level.

To be honest, I can't think of too many competitive games that actively work against the player(s) using some sort of a.I. mechanism. The few examples that I can think of would be the co-operative Lord of the Rings game and it's sister Beowolf (with it's funky 3 paneled folding board), and strangely enough Prince of Florence. I'm sure there are others, and people who are much more versed in many more games than I can come up with them. Again, since most games are designed to be player versus player, there's really not much reason to spend time and effort on a.I.

In the PoF case, the a.I. mechanism is the ever increasing minimum value that a work of art must need to be completed in that round. One of the things that strike me most about this part of the game is this: I can't fathom a reason as to why it's there. Winning games of PoF HAVE to include creating art well above these minimums. I assume this fixes something that was found to be broken in the playtesting at some point. Since you have a limited amount of actions to use to create artwork anyway, just whipping out a bunch of crummy 5 VP creations is a path to failure. I'm left to ponder what happens to the game if you just don't follow that rule.

Beowulf does a really good job of implementing the LotR mechanic of collecting and playing cards along a definite path, but turning original game on it's ear by making it competitive auction game. It uses a.I. well, as various auctions get more interesting as time goes on, leaving players with a lot of decisions regarding "Do I play these cards now, or get bloodied now while holding on for future rewards."

I have trouble including LotR in this list, as it is co-operative, and strangely enough, it usually becomes somewhat of a solitaire affair, with one player making all the decisions for everyone. As a solitaire game (which again, it often turns out to be a solitaire game with three friends helping hold cards for you), it is a pretty fascinating usage of a.I.

Which leads me to this...

Solitaire games, I feel, need some semblance of a.I. to make them have any kind of fun. Just doing something and then rolling dice for some random event doesn't seem to cut it, as a player can't really plan against pure randomness. The player needs to have some feel that he can control his destiny against the game with some amount of strategy. Something logical.

A lot of the design in PocketCiv went towards the Event Cards to make it seem like there was something evolving in the world around the player, that within the randomness of the card draws, there was some logical plan to the chaos. Looking at an excel sheet of all the cards, one can see a progression to the events.

Early Eras have fewer Events, hopefully allowing the player to get a foothold into the game. Later on, Events come nearly every turn; hopefully, the player has built up the resources to protect him from them.

Additionally, the types of Events change over time. Early Era Events are mostly natural disasters, with a few Visitations thrown in for good measure. As the game progresses, so do the Events, in their complexity, the damage they can cause, and within some amount of relationship to where the player should in his civilization at the time. Additionally, the scaling of the scalable Events also helps the game keep up with the player as he grows more powerful, but that's a more obvious effect.

Just throwing dice and looking up Event XX wouldn't be the same. Getting dumped with a Civil War before you have a chance to actually HAVE civility doesn't make much sense.

Actually, the whole Event concept, as originally created in (and, I admit, borrowed from) the grand-daddy Civilization is a nice example of "a.I.-lite," in that it does a good job of throwing out the desired calamities into the mix as the players advance. The rule about secretly trading the calamities to other players somewhat lessens it's a.I. usage, however. Even though I think that themewise it works; as a civilization trades more with other civilizations, foreign ideas can pollute the nirvana that was once a well planned group. But isolation is hardly a good answer as outside ideas and trade also can help foster ideas and speed along civilizations in many ways. So, you take your chances, I guess.

Which brings us to Leviathan. The game as it stands now, in it's simplest terms, move to a sea area, and then see if there are any ships that you can attack. It would be reasonable to simply just roll some dice and look up some ship data in table.

But I want the game to have some intelligence. It needs to have some a.I.

I want the player to have to reason to move about the board, to move to different areas. In order to make this work, I need to have the Fleets change their locations during different parts of the game. Weather and seasonal changes give me a logical reason to do this; during the Winter, ships travelling across the Altantic (especially in the north) will be few and far between, and ships will most likely follow the coast lines; in the Summer, voyages crossing the Atlantic become more plentiful.

I want the game to start being more aggressive as the player become more powerful, and if enough Tales reach land about the fearsome beast that lurks in ocean blue, I want the game to be actively searching for the player.

And, at least for now, here is how I am doing it. Of course, at any point I can change this, but this is my first pass at making this all work.

The Discovery Phase

The Discovery Phase is derived from a small deck of Discovery cards. Each card of the Discovery deck shows all 7 areas of the Atlantic Ocean that the player can occupy. Each card has a different psuedo-random order to the ocean areas. In order for me to better "control the randomness" of the game, ocean areas that are more northernly tend to hang out at the top of the list on the card; southernly areas tend to be on the bottom.

Additionally, there is a Discovery Board (labelled by Years) that Discovery cards will be placed on, one per turn. The placement of the card moves one notch over for every turn. When a card is placed, a player can look up data from the board that is directly to the left and right of the ocean area the player currently occupies. As the player progresses through the board, the type of data changes, simulating the changes that the "world" would be experiencing during those seasonal changes.

The data itself is two codes (a letter and a number) which is derived from referencing the current ocean area that the player is in. The letters determine a Weather Event, or a fleet's Port of Origin and Destination, and the numbers determine the size and strength of the fleets that the player will interact with. Much like the Discovery card and their "sorted-randomness," the data on the board points to Ports that roughly correlate to Northern-to-Southern Ports.

A lot of this organization of Northern-to-Southern stuff has to do with trying to make sure that there are no goofy weather conditions, such as snowstorms in the Carribean, and to make sure that Port Destinations and Origins also make some reliable sense, such that a fleet wouldn't be travelling in the North Atlantic while going on a route from Port Royale to Sierra Leone (a typical southernly route). However, there is enough random slop in the system to keep it from being too predictable.

So, if a player is desperately trying to get more Tales (Tales are the main point system of the game, which are awarded when you take down ships) in Halifax, he can make some informed decisions as to when, and where he should be for his most likely chance of success; but there is no guarantee.

While it's a confusing system from a design standpoint (and involved a lot of excel charts to figure out "the math" behind the numbers), to the player it should play fairly straightforward:
  1. Draw a card, place it in the "slot" of the current turn.
  2. Based on his current location, look up the letter that is to the left of the card in the Ports Chart to determine the ports of Origin and Destination for a Fleet (I'll describe the importance of ports of Origin and Destination in a later post). Place the appropriate Origin and Destination markers on the map as a reminder. Or play out the Weather event.
  3. If he has found a Fleet, look up the number on the right side of the card (again, based on the player ocean location) in the Fleet Chart, which will reveal the composition and strength of the Fleet, and then the battle may or may not begin.
But what does this really mean to the player?

Since the main point system is based on getting Tales "told" in Ports. A player's score is, right now, derived from the port with the LOWEST amount of Tales told. So players will want to naturally target fleets that come and go from all Ports equally, as getting a lot of Tales in one Port is worthless if another Port has zero. However, all Ports are not treated equally due to seasonal adjustments (and, well, map locations). Hopefully, the player can latch on to this, and learn to best adapt to the a.I. of the Seasons to help him focus on the Ports where he needs more Tales. He will need to learn to naturally migrate with the seasons.

At least it is my hope he will.

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Blogger Mark Mistretta said...

Interesting post. I never really thought about it in terms of a.I, but my game design, Castle Raiders, has this attribute, which I guess is what makes it playable solo.

In Castle Raiders, defense cards that players face are drawn each raid from 3 different types. What types are drawn and when determines how difficult the raids are and it is set up to get progressively more difficult as the game goes on. Within the 3 types, there are varying difficulties as well giving the game some randomness.

If you are interested - check out my blog on BGDF.

Also, how does your Leviathan game relate to the SeaMonsters game that Nando is designing? I noticed you had some comments on the blog and I was confused if this was one in the same game or two different games.

1:35 PM  
Blogger SDS said...

Basically, I loved the concept of Nando's theme when it was first presented, and helped try to flesh oout some of the early brainstorming.

And then, as most thread do, it eventually died as other people moved on to other things.

I was looking for another solitaire project to work on, so I adopted the theme. And then Nando started his project up again.

So, yes, they are two individual projects, with two different slants, solitaire and multiplayer.

(As a side note, I'm off on vacation this week, and I know about the missing images in this last post. Next week I'll have to update that, as some things probably aren't very clear without the images).

7:17 PM  
Blogger Yehuda said...

Fitting in with your examples I would put Puerto Rico and Caylus, and of course Shadows Over Camelot.

Essentially, if I get you, any game where you have to plan around the constraints of the game itself, while competing with fellow players, has a kind of AI?

Would a massive wargame like ASL fit this?


3:54 PM  
Blogger SDS said...

Well, it more about the game compensating as the game goes along. In theory, the player becomes more powerful, better positioned, has more control, etc, the further the game goes on. What I'm thinking about requires that the game compensates for this by also becoming tougher, not just the other players who are theorhetically all keeping within the same distance of "control."

12:28 PM  

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