Just last week I was bemoaning that I'd not had a chance to play Codename: Vacuum for a couple of weeks. Thankfully I made up for that this week, getting a couple of games in at lunch with Chief. The first one was the first play of a tweaked version of the June rules, tweaked to fix a problem with the Population strategy. It went fine, and the fix seemed to be an improvement. So far so good.
The second game used the same rules. However, this one didn't go so well. I chose the Military strategy, and I crushed Chief underfoot. The Military strategy in Vacuum is a strange one. It's not overly strong in itself, but the Military strategy allows you to capture locations: either neutral ones or one from other players. It's the only strategy that allows you to steal points from other players: all the other strategies are purely cumulative - your points can only increase.
The only defence against a strong military is a strong military (in the basic game, and some advanced ones), so if someone's feeling imperious you need to step up and defend yourself. There are a couple of advanced decks that give you alternatives to defending yourself, but of course there's no guarantee you'll be playing with them. If you choose not to defend yourself then a win is still possible, but there's pretty much only one way to do it.
In the current version, there are five strategies, of which only three will score during any one game: Military, Exploration, Population, Trade and Knowledge. To win the game, you really need to score well in two of the chosen ones.
- Military rewards you for capturing high-value locations, and a strong military allows you to capture an opponent's locations if they are unable to defend themselves
- Exploration rewards you for exploring interesting bits of the solar system, it doesn't require you to have any locations at all.
- Population rewards you for having a large population spread across your locations, and in the current game, unless a particular advanced deck is in play, each location can only support limited population, so you need several locations to score well in it.
- Trade rewards you for earning lots of money by trading between pairs of locations. You get more money if you control the locations that are trading, so you need some locations to score well in it.
- Knowledge rewards you for developing advanced technologies, it doesn't require any locations to score well.
So if you don't want to go military at all, your only choice (assuming that the Nationalism and Cold War decks aren't in play which allow you to defend yourself against a strong military without a strong military of your own) is to go Exploration and Knowledge.
Don't get me wrong, I like that the Military strategy is important, being able to defend your territory fits the theme of a space race between competing empires nicely. But I don't want the game to be one where you either do Military or Exploration/Knowledge.
So I've spent the second half of the week thinking of ways to break the dependence of the Population and Trade strategies on controlling lots of locations, so you have more strategies available to you. Population is going to be trickier, but I've an idea in my head for the Trade strategy. Of course, it'll change the game quite a lot, add more components and make it less of a deck-building game. Once I've got it sorted out in my head, I'll need to work out which advanced decks need to change as a result, knock up another prototype and give it a try. It's exciting that the game is still changing so much, but it means I'm further than I hoped from it being 'ready'.
In other news, I managed to get along to Newcastle Gamers again for only the fifth time since I moved back here nearly two years ago. I didn't take Vacuum because of the concerns mentioned above, I just turned up at 8 and started looking for a game. A guy called Dan was loitering, waiting for another table to finish, so I joined him and a guy called Michael in playtesting Michael's restaurant-themed game. Dan also had a prototype he wanted to test later, though sadly I had to head off to bed before they started that. It felt a bit weird to be playtesting a game I hadn't designed - it was the first time I'd done it since the "heyday" of Reiver Games, and for once I wasn't trying to make a decision as a publisher about whether or not to take it further - just giving the designer a chance to try it out and hopefully providing some useful feedback at the end. It was the first time I'd met either Dan or Michael, and it wasn't until halfway through the game that the subject of my history designing and publishing games came up. Dan had heard of Carpe Astra and Sumeria and owned the It's Alive! iPhone app. He called me a 'veteran'!
It was good to hang out with some other designers, Dan was talking about trying to set up a Newcastle spin off of Rob Harris' Playtest UK network of UK game designers. Sounds very interesting, and it would be great to try Vacuum in front of some more people. I'd definitely be up for that (especially if it's in a pub!).