GenCon Diaries: Testing Empire

Some of the photos for this post were borrowed from Jason Tagmire's post on GenCon here. Secondly, I want to thank the many people who helped me test Empire Reborn. If you're reading this and your name isn't in the playtester section, hit me up in the comments.

Aside from promoting Farmageddon, my number one task for GenCon was to test a quality build of Empire Reborn. I assumed (correctly) that GenCon would provide me access to dozens of testers. This is far above and beyond my typical week. For the past several months, I've been pushing Empire as much as possible to really take advantage of the show's audience and hopefully show it to a publisher.

Before I get too far down, you should be aware of the First Exposure Playtest Hall at GenCon. I paid $150, and in exchange they promoted and recruited dozens of excellent testers for my game. Every night, for four hours, I ran 4 tests of Empire Reborn. At a cost of $12.50 per play test, I think that's money well spent. If you have a game you wish to test seriously, I highly recommend you take advantage of their program. Also, don't forget UnPub.

The purpose of this post is to outline the significant revisions I've made to Empire Reborn and my purpose for doing so. Really, everything falls under one of three primary things:

  • The change is implemented to improve the pacing of the game.
  • The change is implemented to eliminate a question.
  • The change is implemented to improve the presentation of information for players.

These changes were fairly clear from observation (especially the second one), but I was fortunate to have a publisher and several of his designers sit in and play the game once. Their mixture of precise and philosophical feedback really pushed me in the right direction to update the game quickly and decisively.

Before I get into what I fixed, I should note the core mechanic of the game of playing cards for Reinforcements or activating battlefield tactics worked and was well received. Someone asked how to buy it in every play test. More surprisingly, the results were fairly balanced. Not surprisingly, the more straightforward Imperial and Brigade factions won the most (tied), with the Militia and Yorkans winning slightly fewer. Finally, nobody was able to "break" the game, which was a relief.

Improving the Pace

Empire is intended to be a relatively short, 60 minute game for up to four players. Currently, it's 75 minutes to 90 minutes and far more if the players are prone to analysis paralysis (AP). In addition, there's too much space between player turns. Players play actions, conduct battles, and more. By the time the fourth player's turn rolls around, folks may be lost on their cell phones.

One thing that's very much within my control is shortening the length of the game from 7 to 6 rounds (potentially even 5). I also jump-started the game by giving players 3 Units on the board at the start of the game. One of the three scoring rounds was removed.

The game, as it was presented at GenCon, was very conducive for AP players. There was too much information available on the board and the information was presented such that players would often check, double check, then triple check their options. One test of four AP players lasted for an astonishing two and a half hours! I'm removing some of the information.

  • Only one turn order marker will be drawn from the bag at a time. This means a player will have limited information as to who will follow him and what they will do.
  • With only 2 scoring rounds, players have fewer turns to over-optimize to squeeze out one or two additional points.
  • Battles resolve in a new phase following turns. This means players take fewer actions during their turns and remain engaged to participate in the battles.

This may lead to some significant balance problems with the game. It may also completely shake the game I've built so far. However, I'm confident the next test will be mostly positive and the information gained from IT will lead to something special.

Eliminating the Questions

In order to appeal to new players and not exhaust existing players with questionable mechanics, I took notes on every recurring question in order to just cut them out. Put another way, I began to streamline things.

Instead of making it such that you can only use seaports to travel to territories adjacent to the ocean except headquarters, I just made all of the headquarters landlocked. Rule removed.

You can no longer place a control token in a territory with a headquarters. It does nothing to have two, except confuse players.

The Fighting Withdrawal tactic used to remove 1 Unit from each Army. However, if the Brigade has only 1 Unit, it begs the question of "Do they still get a trophy then if I lose?" Now, the Brigade doesn't lose a Unit, they inflict 1 casualty and retreat.

The notion of Actions versus Reinforcement versus Support Tactics baffled players for the first round. And for good reason -- it was clunky. Here is the new player turn order:

  1. Reinforce
  2. First Action
  3. Second Action
  4. Reinforce (only if not done in step 1)

You still only reinforce once and it's clearly presented so that you do it at the beginning or end of your turn. As for Support Tactics, they are now called Staff Orders and they are one of the four Actions available to a player. They were always more or less very effective Actions, so they are just that now. The world is better for it (I hope).

Instead of putting the text for the Field Marshal and Imperial Guard cards on the Reference boards, they will now just be on the cards. I had a strange obsession with removing all text from the cards, but the trade off was not valuable.

Previously, territory could be controlled in one of three ways: have control of the fortress, have a control token, or have the most units. This last one was very rare and was unclear. Now, it will only be the first two. This also means I can setup the player reference board so that instead of counting your control tokens, you'll just see the space you have that indicates how many are off and you can then do simple math.

March and Sail were two very similar Actions. I've merged them back into one; mobilize. I've also reduced the number of Strategic Victory (formerly Bonus Objective) cards (from 4 to 3) to reduce the amount of information players need to process.

The rules are also greatly clarified based on slight details and questions that can only be obtained from thorough testing.

Final side note. The other night while browsing the About page for Academy Games, I saw this helpful information, which they call the Warcholak guide, by Nicholas Warcholak.

1. Is the rule necessary to simulate the TYPICAL (over 10% of the time) conditions and outcomes on the battlefield? If YES, keep. If NO, go to 2.
2. Does the rule require significant mental resources to remember to play? (Significant is defined as needing to remember more than 2 facts.) If YES, dump. If NO, go to 3.
3. Does the rule add to the fun of the game? Does it produce outcomes that add significant replayability, oh-no moments, gotcha moments, or simulation pay-off outside the general flow of the game? If YES, keep. If NO, dump. 

Improving the Presentation

The biggest problem here is that my current reference boards are, put simply, heinous. They are a sloppy assortment of data that is barely functional and does not make it easy to obtain or retain data pertinent to the game.

The board is not much better. My little "score box" is supposed to show you what earns you points, but the iconography is illegible and it is sorted in a way that confuses more than aids.

I'll start with the cards. The layout here won't change much, but I took inspiration from Morels. Here are the cards prior to the tests:

Notice how the number and symbol are smashed in the top left? Now, notice how Morels does it:

Symbol followed by number. Much easier to read. And to restate, special cards will have explanatory text at the bottom.

The board will now contain far more essential details and spaces to contain information. The score tracker will have a symbol to denote when scoring takes place as well as icons that display WHAT to score at that time. There will be 3 spaces for the Strategic Victory cards that will lead nicely to the end game scoring.

The board will have a score track, which I think is better and more easily viewed than private coins. There is no need for the information to be private in this game. The board will be slightly larger, which will allow for more room of the pieces.

The Reference boards will receive the majority of the graphical design overhaul. I will probably do an entire post JUST on them after I make them, but here is the gist of what I intend.

  • The top will display the icon, color, and a short description of the faction and how to play them.
  • There will be spaces for players to place Units, Control Tokens, and Trophies. This expedites setup AND makes it easier for a player to glance across the table to see the status of an opponent.
  • Tactics and Staff Orders will be arranged and color coded based on when they can play. The board will tell a story from right to left so that the player sees what he can do now, then what he can do next.
  • In particular, the battle order will break out and better present the Offensive and Defensive Tactics so you know only the information relevant to you.
  • All of the Actions will be listed on the board.

Other Changes

The board will be increasing just slightly to allow for a little more maneuvering and strategic setup. The number of player Units will also increase from 12 to 15 as a result.

Several of the Tactics have been modified to account for the new phase system.

Players each have 6 Control tokens instead of 3. I began testing with this halfway through the GenCon sessions and it was a significant improvement.

The Field Marshal now lets you draw +3 cards, so in effect, +2 for the turn. I want playing the Field Marshal to be a significant, not obvious decision, because the turn you use him should be decisive. After all, it will allow you to more likely play a second (or third!) Tactic or Staff Order.

There will now be numbered Battle Flag tokens to mark the order of battle resolution.

There are now 8 Strategic Victory cards instead of 4. There will be 3 each game, so this should add some variety to the game. Controlling an enemy HQ is now a Strategic Victory. This should greatly clean up the scoring and this rule.

Coal territories have been renamed to Cities.

If you'd like to read the updated rules, you can find them here. Please note they might change. In fact, count on it. You can always find the most current rules linked at the bottom of the Empire Reborn game page.

Thoughts? Concerns? Feedback? Anything jump out as "wow cool!" or "please no!"

Comments

I want to play this RIGHT NOW. When does the iOS version come out!? ;-)

Everything you have written makes perfectly logical sense. The only thing I question about the new turn-order stuff is that it has no effect on the third and fourth players decisions, so is that good or bad? You told me that you rarely care about actual turn order, but rather your position in relation to the other players, does this system give 3 & 4 an advantage or a reason to AP more than 1 & 2 each turn?

So, I haven't tested this yet, but I think it will have a huge effect on the 3rd and 4th player decisions. For example, if first player declares a battle against the player who ultimately will go fourth, this player has many changes.

1.) He can rush Units to the battle site and divert cards for that.
2.) He can ignore the battle site and count it as a loss.
3.) He can hit the attacker in another territory.

1 and 2 will have less to AP about because they will have less information. 3 and 4 will have more to AP about, but, the battles WILL be declared. They can change the course of the battle, or go elsewhere. I'll have to see. It could fundamentally break the game or be awesome.

As for iOS, Worden at one point was offering to help me make a Vassal Mod...

Yeah, sorry, I wrote that ambiguously. You are describing exactly what I meant. First and second have some "fog of war" about turn order, third and fourth do not. I was concerned that this may upset the balance a bit.

I'm really worried about it. In one of the final playtests at GenCon, the Militia player kept moving other Units into my territories. It really dictated my turns and he manipulated me masterfully.

I wonder if, with this new turn order, people will declare battles hoping to defeat the enemy, or at the very least occupy him with the battle such that he doesn't take territory or go elsewhere.

"... Worden at one point was offering to help me make a Vassal Mod ..."

I neither confirm nor deny this statement. ;-)

Perhaps I should find another larger-scale map-based strategy game to practice with first .... hmmm .... what to do, what to do. ;-p