Field Marshals Checkup #2

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I decided a short time ago to focus my development efforts entirely on Field Marshals in order to make it as excellent as possible. The end goal, at least for now, is to make it pitch ready for the GenCon board game convention, at which time I intend to show it to some hopefully interested publishers.

The game continues to make progress, but this past Sunday (6/3/2012) the game was really put through the grinder. I tested it in a 4 player setup with 2 veteran print and digital designers, both of whom are incredibly competitive and obsessed with winning (i.e. not how I play games). I also tested it with my friend Cole Medieros (designer of GUBS) who is also a fantastic designer, but way more laid back. This concoction of design experience and personality really helped me see some of the flaws in the tested version of Field Marshals.

Here are the problems I felt I needed to solve:

  • Despite having 3 Action choices (March, Attack, Diplomacy), and varied turn order, players almost always chose the same action in the same scenario. Basically, I built up two cumbersome mechanics (Action Choice + Variable Turn Order) that led to a very static player result.
  • A few supplemental features (Coal, Fortresses, Orders, Seaports) had grown out of a legitimate need, but been integrated poorly. As a result, tiny rules were being missed and the pacing suffered.
  • The component set grew a bit out of proportion with my intent. Keeping costs in mind is important for designers.
  • The cards, despite being everyone's favorite part of the game (and the game's innovation) weren't as strong or widely used as I liked.
  • Players too quickly reached their Unit cap of 10 on the board. At that point, the game lost some of its excitement as a choice was effectively removed.

I spent several days thinking about these problems and the specific feedback. After a few days of drawing maps, researching the Peninsular War, and brainstorming during long meetings at work, I arrived at a philosophical solution that guided all of my efforts.

The cards and tactics are the best part of Field Marshals. They are elegant, interesting, and unique. The cards must be the focus.

Using this as my guideline, I began converting these supplemental features into Tactics and components of each player's deck. For example, the Diplomacy turn action was a bit too powerful. I neutered it, but then it lost its potency and value. My solution, was to convert it into a Tactic. I added the Diplomat card and a few very powerful Diplomacy actions. Instead of an action that is always available, it is contingent upon having a set of cards. Therefore, it's okay to make it more powerful. This also makes it more fun!

Similarly, building a Fortress is now a Tactic that's based upon the Fortress card. This should make them less obvious and more of a choice.

All told, the set of 6 card types expanded to 8, with the player deck growing from 25 to 30 cards.

  • Infantry
  • Cavalry
  • Artillery
  • Imperial Guard (wild card)
  • General
  • Fog of War
  • Diplomat
  • Fortress

To make the additional cards more interesting, I expanded the number of Tactics from 5 to 8. I made it so that a few tactics could use any card for the third card in the set. This prevents cards like the Diplomat, Fortress, and Fog of War from being dead weight.  I also now allow players to play all 5 cards if they want to more quickly cycle through their decks.

Another twist is that the Imperial Guard can be used as any card to activate a Tactic. Really want a Fortress? Use the Imperial Guard, but now he cannot be used to fill the role of the Diplomat. Oh, the choices!

Previously, the Imperial Guard could only duplicate another card that was played. This made him fiddly and far less useful. Now, players have several ways by which to unlock and utilize the powerful tactics. Here is the current set of Tactics and combinations from the player reference board.

While we're on the topic of Tactics, I streamlined many of them in very subtle ways. This is something I spent months doing with Farmageddon and it's some of the most important work I did.  I wanted to remove fiddly rules (i.e. Encirclement couldn't be used against Units in a Fortress) and make them as interesting as possible. Also, to help mitigate the impact of random turn order, I provided players with more defensive options. This makes combat a little more dynamic, but it's still a strategic game.

To further focus the game towards the cards and streamline the experience, I've greatly modified how players select Actions and determine turn order. Previously, each player drew one numbered token out of a bag of 20. The lowest number would go first. My hope was that the uncertainty would make for a fun moment. "Ah, I'm at 12. I'm probably going in the middle." In reality, it was just an uneasy choice and players had little control. Plus, you'd often have a situation of the player drawing a 15, assuming he was going third or fourth, then going 1st because the other three players drew worse tokens. This wasn't fun, it just lead to frustration.

I've now reduced the 20 tokens to just 4 tokens numbered 1-4. You know when you're going to take your turn. However, turn order is revealed 1 by 1, so the player who goes first doesn't know the order of the next 3 players. Another upside of this is that I eliminated 16 tokens and a bag from my component list!

In addition to the simplification of the turn orders, players no longer choose one of 3 actions (March, Attack, Diplomacy) to use on their turn. At its best, this system made for a mildly interesting choice. At its worst, all players always knew what to do OR they picked one and ended up getting screwed by the random turn order.

Previously, the active player on his turn could:

  • Do his chosen action (March or Attack or Diplomacy)
  • Reinforce
  • Build a Fortress
  • Tactics
Now, the active player on his turn can:
  • March twice OR March and Attack
  • Reinforce
  • Play Tactics
The old March and Attack choices are now just always available and simplified. The diplomacy and Fortress options are now integrated into the cards/Tactics mechanic. It makes for a far cleaner, more streamlined experience.

Quick notes on other Changes

  • Total Unit pool is increased from 10 to 12
  • Previously, players could use the same card to both Reinforce AND use as a Tactic. Now, it's Reinforce OR Tactic. Remember, 5 cards now per turn!
  • Coal is removed from the board as a separate token. Now, controlling a Coal territory is worth more at the end of the game.
  • Players receive just one Secret Order (out of a possible 6 total). Secret Orders no longer have tiers. Secret Orders are all worth 5 Points if completed.
  • Victory Points are awarded by controlling territory and having the largest army.
  • The Map has been revised to make each headquarter position more equal and drive more conflict.
  • Seaports have been tweaked slightly to pose a less obvious and more interesting choice.
  • The game ends after 8 rounds. This is more or less the same, but now it's clear and distinct, as opposed to "once someone runs out of cards." A good lesson: If your game has a fuzzy aspect that can be made crisp, always choose crisp.

I'm really pleased with the evolution of the design. Obviously, only testing will verify how good the iteration actually was, but I'm confident I'm on the right path. As always, you can visit the Field Marshals game page for links to the Rules, Card Distribution, Reference Boards, and Map layouts.

My plans, if you're curious, are to prove this revised version through local testing, then send out one or two blind copies. Then, GenCon. Thoughts, questions, and comments are always appreciated.