Afterciv: Big Prototype Test
So tonight I'm running a little game session to lock down the first few 'rules' of the game and play it out a bit more. I've separated the paper-prototyping boards as I've translated the rules into Excel, giving me a lot more room to test the game area.
On starting the game the process has become a lot easier and I've already gotten more than a few insights into the starting game economy. After the first opening turns (about 2-3) the surplus of resources were immediately too high, thus making the initial challenge of the game and pressure to explore somewhat redudant. One of the better, or more positive, outcomes of the initial turns was that I stumbled into a heavy forest area - and by the second move, I genuinely decided to move south instead of further into the forests.
Another positive outcome from this initial opening round was that I had to actually make a decision on which adjacent tile I wanted to claim - the grass gives me nothing, the wasteland is devoid of food, but the urban/building tile has a bit of everything (signifying the survivors dismantling/searching in the ruins for supplies).
It's encouraging to have an opening turn pose a decision on a player to make an informed choice on which tile to 'claim' as part of the camp with the looming resource upkeep pressure, but this decision became immediately sidelined by the abundance of production intake. The surplus itself removes incentives for the player to explore - and I have a fear that without any type of pressure on the player, there really is no incentive to make decisions with risk/reward.
The beginning of the game has the player starting off in a commanding position with their resources and this really detracts from the theme of the game - honestly, by the fourth turn, I was bored. This is quite damning and I couldn't find an incentive to build a work crew, which shows a serious flaw in the game's pacing and pressure to progress. I decided to do some reading on the topic.
The first article I opened up for some introductory reading was by Anastasiia Bobeshko, which was a blog post covering fundamental concepts of Real-Time/Turn-Based economies. Some of food for thought exists here regarding the disruption of workers gathering resources as a gameplay tactic, as well as the vectors of probability. Whilst this blog post itself is far too cursory and seems somewhat disjointed, it has valuable insight into economy design concepts. The gendered pronouns is obviously a rather undesired part of the post.
The next article that I found interesting was one by the ex-EA Designer (Spore,Civ) Soren Johnson on Creating Balanced In-Game Economies. You definitely need to read about some of the occurrences of the chaotic Ultima Online economy, as the concept of player cartels and goods scarcity is really interesting. I found some helpful concepts that came out from this reading.
Incremental Increases - Units increase in cost with every purchase, forcing players to diversify their choices during play to maximize their buying power. This mechanic seems like a good solution, but dynamic/scaling costs of units seems, per the article, discouraged by Johnson with a really good point: you're essentially punishing the player for their playstyle and their choices, which stops being an act of balancing but more trying to force them to play in a specific way. The following examples of subsidized economies are more interesting - the idea that you incentivize the other choices that a player does not regularly take in order to tilt their decision making based on a value proposition.
This leads on to a fundamental question about scarcity and balancing, which has been the bane of many genres of games. Ideally, you want a game's economy to lead to a story, which is based on tragedies and triumphs, but that becomes somewhat difficult if the opening game session is designed to provide a balanced access to resources. Whilst this may be beneficial to competitive games, it is less so in those that are seeking to push the player to utilize their abilities to overcome challenges presented by scarcities.
For Afterciv I need to find a balance in production vs. promoting scarcity within the realms of player expectations. The time scale becomes a factor into the design - where Civ spanned hundreds of years per turn (then to decades, followed by years), Afterciv should operate in weeks per turn. So, we're going to do some napkin logic:
We have a forested area where survivors are scavenging for supplies and cutting trees down. If these survivors are non-specialized/not work crews, it goes within reason that they're simply foraging and collecting whatever they can. I have no idea how to forage for food and I doubt that you can collect enough berries, mushrooms or small rabbits to feed a whole person in a single day. So I've lowered the total production values, whilst keeping the upkeep values the same.
By reducing the base production values of Survivor populations to only '1' for a bonus, it means every tile with a survivor is producing mainly the resource it has a predisposition to. This already has reduced the initial surplus to be quite lower than before. I've set up on a lake by a small town block this time, so I'm producing a lot more water than food.
As the scavenger unit has 'found' two new survivors on a building tile, the pressure on the camp increases to have a deficit on the overall food stocks - but it is still quite soft. I'm not sure I'm capturing that scrappy nature of a post-apocalyptic survival theme.
The positive side to this round is that without a surplus pool of tools, I can't build a work crew, so I have to move the scavenger around to locate a tile that has a higher chance to offer one. This seems to work a lot better, as the game becomes highly dependent on exploration.
By 'finding' some tools and also survivors, the game now has the possibility to exchange two survivors into a 'Work Crew' that is essentially a worker unit - the idea being that this unit can cultivate any tile for resources. This has flattened out my resource surplus to being basically completely stable and has, in turn, revealed a part of the game's progression I didn't foresee; unit upkeep actually has a steady pressure on the camp with survivors. By playing the game purely with survivor pops + 1 scavenger, I wasn't seeing that multiple units on the field that weren't producing any resources would immediately start causing pressures on the overall pool of food/water. This is a very positive finding.
So by establishing the Work Crew to set up a mini-camp on an urban tile, I've started collecting food/water/wood at a positive rate. This makes the crew and surrounding tiles strategically important for me to protect (against nothing right now), but also has revealed some new rules that are necessary:
- How do we build a mini-camp? What are the resource costs?
- If building a mini-camp/work camp an ability with a cost, is this cost refunded when the camp is packed up?
- What resources would be included in this cost? Would it be refunded fully?
The decision here seems a bit more apparent; I think that a Work Crew only needs some wood as a resource to deploy a mini-work camp, and that can be turned into a larger camp with further tools investments. This way we can have an investment resource (tools) and a flat-fee resource that helps establish the necessity to collect wood, whilst keeping 'tools' as a strategic flexible resource for the player to continually seek out.
That's it for today - lots of good findings on these rounds, as well as some design challenges!