All right, let’s talk about some design decisions in Forge War. Specifically: the mine.
From the earliest design stages, the purpose of the mine was to use spatial reasoning to gather resources. Obviously there are a number of ways a resource management game allows a player to gather resources: dice, worker placement, role selection, but, I don’t know, spatial reasoning. I love spatial reasoning. It might be my favorite way to exercise my brain, and it never even occurred to me that it could have a place in a Euro-style resource management game…until I met Trajan.
Trajan is my favorite Stefan Feld game, mainly because of the central mechanic of moving beads around these bowls in a manner similar to the classic Mancala. The game is complicated, so I don’t want to go into exactly how it works, but, essentially, your ability to do well in the game – to get bonus actions, resources, and even just taking the actions that you want to take – is based on spatial reasoning – getting the right colored beads in the right bowls in the right numbers at the right times. It just requires a lot of planning and a different way of thinking, and I think it’s great. After experiencing Trajan, I wanted every game to involve some amount of spatial reasoning.
Let me tell you, I got really excited for a couple minutes upon seeing the the Kickstarter for Fantasy Frontier, a Euro with the central point-generating mechanic of pattern building and recognition, developed by placing different types of land tiles onto the table to match pattern cards in your hand. Unfortunately, then I saw all the dice and…not much else, and I got less excited.
But anyway, spatial reasoning resource gathering: it’s the new hit thing. According to me, anyway. So then I had to decide exactly how to do it, and at this point, I may have cheated a bit. To get inspired by what might be categorized as an abstract mechanic, I decided to head over to the GIPF project and try out different things. I ended up really liking YINSH, which features 2 players moving 3 rings around a hex board, spawning a same-colored marker on the spot they leave and flipping markers they pass over to the opposite color. The goal of the game is to make 3 5-in-a-rows, but the trick is that whenever you make a 5-in-a-row, you lose one of your rings, which makes the game harder.
This probably sounds familiar to the mine mechanics in Forge War: 3 things moving around, spawning and flipping other tokens. Though it’s adapted for more players and obviously you’re not trying to get a 5-in-a-row, though contiguous groups of 5 workers (unions) is always good. Instead, every worker spawned or flipped gives a resource to the player who owns it, and I think the whole thing works really well. Resource gathering is variable from turn to turn and depends on a player’s skill in navigating this mine. Which is exactly what I wanted.
I quickly realized that this mine was sort of separated from the rest of the game – almost like you were playing two separate games that were lightly coupled – so I decided to have turn order for the entire game based on the number of workers players have in the mine, and I started adding advantages and rewards in the market and quest cards that feed back into the mine – moving overseers and workers.
Eventually I also increased the importance of turn order in an attempt to stream-line the game and more strongly couple the mine to the rest of the game. I think this coupling is now as successful as it could be. Some might still argue that quests and the mine are still separate, but I would disagree.
The problem was that, as played, the mine phase was still a little boring. On your turn in the mine, the best move was usually fairly obvious, unless you really needed a specific resource that isn’t provided by this “best move.” The threat of a player forming a union was always present, and unions are obviously good for players, but they weren’t such a detriment to the other players that they would go too much out of their way to prevent unions. Especially in 3-4 player games where hurting yourself to hurt one opponent isn’t really economical.
And in 2 player games, blerg. The mine phase was pretty ho-hum, mostly because the mine resets every stage and each stage is 6 turns long, so with 2 players, in 12 player moves the mine doesn’t really develop enough to be very interesting before it resets. Someone might form a union…maybe. In addition, if people are playing conservatively, trying to deny the other player resources, a 2 player game could end up being very resource scarce, which is just less fun.
So now we’ve gotta figure out how to make this better. I’m kind of exaggerating on how bad it was, but it could have been better, so let’s do that, because if you’re not trying to make the best game you can possibly make, then why are you making a game? That’s how I approach things, at least.
So the initial goal was to get more resources to the 2 player game and make the mine more interesting. It was suggested that players should get 2 moves in the mine each turn in a 2 player game, but that doesn’t really resolve the underlying issue and it generates too many resources. Plus, that would only be for a 2 player game, and I’m not really a fan of special 2 player rules. Like, “We designed this game for 3-4 players, but you can play it with 2 if you do these special things” – it just doesn’t sit right with me.
However, that led to the idea of the first player in turn order getting an extra turn after everyone else. So everyone takes a normal move in the mine, and then the first guy gets to take a second move. This is great because it adds a percentage of extra resources that scales backward with the number of players, shoring up the problem of lower player number getting fewer resources, and, more importantly, it provides significant incentive to being the first player (i.e. having the fewer workers in the mine), especially in a 2 player game – now you’re getting twice as many resources as your opponent. Also, the reward of an extra movement for being first is counter to the requirement for being first. You move more and now you have more workers and so drop in player order. This means that player order changes more often and more dynamically, which is totally more interesting.
This, however, raised a new problem. After some test games, it became clear that, especially in a 2 player game, it was very easy for a player to maintain hold of first player throughout the entire game by making conservative plays until opportunities to form unions present themselves. This essentially gives you 2 moves in a row – at the end of one turn and the beginning of the next turn – which makes it rather easy to form unions. And once you form a union, your worker count drops to zero, so you maintain being first player until you can form another union. Rinse, repeat and the other player is just not happy.
So the next tweak was to change player order determination. Not to totally flip it around, but just make it harder to maintain staying in first. So player order is still based on who has the fewest workers, but if there is a tie, instead of the order staying the same, it now becomes opposite of what it was before. So previously, in order to remain in first, you just had to have the same number of workers as your opponent, but now you need fewer to remain in first, and that single worker difference is huge.
Things are still being tweaked, but I’m happy with where things are now. Some rebalancing is taking place because the amount of resources gained has increased, and the quests need to be fine-tuned to accommodate. Also, I am strongly considering increasing the union count to 6 instead of 5. But I’ll say once again that I am very happy with where the mine is now. The mine is exciting and fun and that is the most important thing.