For the first time in ages I actually did some work on one of my own board game designs yesterday.
Yesterday was a weird day. I was up at 6am, and then on the road before seven for a hospital visit in Cambridge (about 60 miles away). It was a morning of strange neurological tests while they determine if I'm a suitable candidate for a new treatment. I then rushed back home as my friend Mal was stopping in on his way back home from the Latitude music festival down here in the South. I got a text from him upon my arrival home to say he was still about an hour away, so I rushed into town to pay in a cheque from a late paying distributor. It turns out my walking isn't so good at the moment, the 2 mile brisk walk left me very tired and I was really struggling by the time I got home. But I did make it back in plenty of time for Mal's arrival.
We spent the afternoon playtesting a few games including a couple of changes to Border Reivers - my first games design.
For those of you who don't know it, Border Reivers is a light civilisation/wargame themed around the border squabbles between the clans of Northern England and Southern Scotland in the 13th to 16th centuries. Each turn, you can plays cards, recruit more cards and armies (through gambling some of your funds on a die roll) perform an action with each of your armies and then claim income from your settlements. Armies can build fortifications, settle down to create new settlements, mine gold from a mine location or move.
Two of the biggest problems I find with the first edition are the recruitment die rolls and uneventful turns.
At the beginning of your turn, you get to roll a ten-sided die twice per city, once to recruit a new army and once to recruit a card. If the die result is less than the amount of money you gambled on that die roll (e.g. a result of 0 will always get you a reinforcement even if you spend 0, a spend of 9 will guarantee you a reinforcement and a spend of 4 will get you a 50% chance - 0, 1, 2, 3, 4), you get the army or the card of your choice from a deck of cards. You lose the money whether successful or not. Since you can have up to three cities, you could be doing up to six of these rolls at the beginning of each turn. But it gets worse! A couple of the cards give you an extra roll for armies and an extra roll for cards, so if you had all three cities and all six cards, you'd be getting a staggering 12 reinforcement rolls a turn. I can't ever see that happening, but certainly three cities was not uncommon in the games I played. Most of those rolls you wouldn't spend money on, so it would be a lot of die rolling, hoping for 0s.
The other big problem was uneventful turns. In the game you had very few armies (by design), so there were often turns when you didn't want to move them unless you got another army or a particular card. So you'd make your reinforcement rolls - fail, not do anything and then claim your income and that was your turn done. Not much fun :-(
I like the rest of the design of the game, but I think in hindsight (and based on the feedback I've received) these are the two biggest problems in the game.
I'd had a bunch of ideas that might help fix these problems, but I've not tried them out as yet, so when Mal came round for the afternoon we wanted to give it a try. Mal and I have played a lot of Border Reivers over the years, at first I always used to win, but recently Mal's started beating me :-(
Time to change the rules ;-)
In his scientific way, Mal had wisely suggested we try one of the changes at a time, rather than making sweeping changes to everything. So first of all we tried a fairly simple change:
Cities give you one roll for army reinforcements and a free card every turn.
What I had hoped was that this would reduce the number of turns in which you had nothing to do, as you would always be able to get a card each turn. Since cards allow you to attack your opponents indirectly (stealing their income, ambushing their armies in the field or causing their settlements to rise up against them) or aid with direct attacks (reducing the effectiveness of their fortifications) I had hoped the game would be more aggressive as a result.
Initially, things seemed to be going well, we used the cards a lot and did start attacking other other fairly early. The game see-sawed a bit, like it often does and there were lots of nail-biting fights.
However, after a promising early start the game didn't go anywhere. Fights in Border Reivers are brutal, the most likely conclusion is that everyone dies :-) As a result by the time you had broken through your opponent's outer defences you almost certainly didn't have enough troops remaining to attack his city. This was additionally hampered by the fact that he was getting a card (or more) each turn, and hence would almost certainly have a militia card ready to defend his city from attack. The game continued like a couple of punch-drunk boxers unable to land a blow on each other for way too long (maybe an hour and a half - usually our games lasted twenty to forty minutes). Eventually, we gave up, convinced it was never going to end :-(
Mal mentioned that this just went to show how well balanced the original version was.
I think the next thing to try is replacing the die rolls with a fixed cost for armies and cards - this will definitely fix problem A and might help to fix problem B if the cost is low enough, but clearly there is a point where the cost is too low!