Tuesday, April 27, 2010


A friend of mine linked me to the Phylo Project, presumably to ask my opinion. I always presume people want my opinion; it entitles me to give it to them. At length.

If you haven't heard of it (probably) and if you don't feel like clicking through and reading up on it (also probably) let me give you a brief synopsis. A bunch of biologists, or zoologists, or some other related ologists (I got my degree in Physics. I have strong cultural reasons to disdain any "science" that needs to say ology so you know it's a science. Also, any science or field of study that isn't Physics.) Where was I? Oh yeah. A bunch of "scientists" realized that the same eight year olds who can't tell the difference between a badger and a wolverine could rattle off about a hundred different species of Pokemon. So, to promote knowledge of things that actually matter, they're trying to make a trading card game (TCG) out of real world species. Theoretically, if a bunch of eight-year-olds play this game rather than Pokemon they'll actually learn something.

I can see their point, I remember being a twelve-year-old with obsessions. (I don't recall being an eight-year-old with obsessions so well, but I imagine the cases are analogous.) I read the entire Lord of the Rings series in seventh grade. Twice. I saw Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail so many times... I could quote more than half of the movie, and would do so at any opportunity.

Let me share a lesson from my barren, fruitless Junior High love life: People don't want to hear about your obsessions. (If you're wondering how well I learned it seeing as I'm writing this blog, well so am I) If they're already Monty Python fans they'll laugh and quote a line themselves, but if they aren't; you aren't winning any converts. You can persuade people that what you have is worth obsessing over, but you don't do it by quoting the lines, you do it by showing them the movie.

Which is why I get nervous when I read some of the lines on the website. "inform the notion of biodiversity" "minimize biodiversity loss" "environmental challenge". These phrases come dangerously close to technical jargon; if you're trying to sell the game to somebody who hasn't already bought into your obsession then you're going to want to use words that don't sound like they came out of a dissertation. If we're assuming we're trying to get your average bored fourth grader to play this game then you don't want to overburden them with the heavy language right off the bat. Wait till they start wanting to learn this stuff on their own. You'll do ok selling it to the teachers since they speak your language already, but remember those teachers still have to sell it to the fourth graders to have your desired effect.

Which brings me to another lesson, one that I had definitely learned by the time I got to fourth grade. Educational games tend to be great on education and terrible on being a game. You can make educational games, and you can make them fun and playable, but you can only do it by treating it as a game first and an educational tool second. Which is why I suppress a shudder when I see that you've got the cards all designed with no rules behind them. Educational? Very. Fun? It's anybody's guess at this point. Mine is that your eight-year-olds are going to go back to Pokemon as soon as that bell dings recess.

Which is another point; rules are important. With the rules you determine the structure of the game and thereby everything about it. Especially how fun it is to play. Imagine I came up to you and said "I just designed the best sports car ever", and then I showed you my drawing. Nevermind that the lines of the car and it's aerodynamics are important for things like speed and fuel efficiency, if I haven't paid any attention to the engine of the car then I can hardly call it fully designed. But engines are reasonably modular; I don't know much about cars but maybe I could slap one into my "best sports car ever" and it'd work out. Lemme try a different analogy.

When I was in sixth grade I designed a robot that would kill viruses. A nanite scale thing, it was designed to recognize viruses, interface with them and drill into their protein coat and extract/destroy the DNA. Pretty neat. Thinking about it now I can see dozens of problems that I simply hadn't accounted for as a sixth grader. In the past decade I've learned quite a bit more about robots, computers, and proteins that make me realize that my early attempt was naive. In the same way I look at the Phylo project and I see that there are a whole host of complications that just haven't been dealt with.

I'm not trying to say you're a bunch of sixth graders; it's just outside you field of expertise. I've spent years studying games while you were learning biology. It's like comparing a film school graduate's work with some random video off of youtube; the graduate's youtube video is going to look a lot more polished since he knows a thing or two about how films are actually made.

Which brings me to crowdsourcing. Yes, in general you can get some pretty good results with the technique, but you're depending on it too heavily here. To get the results you need you've got to find the intersection of two populations; "people who know enough about game design to make a good game" and "people who are interested in working on your project." If the second population doesn't include anybody in the first population, then your game is going to suck and nobody's going to play it when their teacher isn't forcing them. The way to get around this is to increase the size of your second population. And then you have to deal with the problem of selection; how to sift through the random cranks and their half baked designs to get the one done by a caring professional.

There's an additional problem; having multiple, disconnected people working on the same game will lead to confusion quicker than concord. Imagine if, instead of an encyclopedia, Wikipedia was about creating collaborative works of art. You'd have people bickering about how the paintings were supposed to look. You might get something resembling modern art, but you'd fall dismally short of Renaissance paintings. If you even managed to complete a picture it'd be bland, homogenized by the disputing artists trying to take it in the direction of their own vision. "Homogenized" works for an encyclopedia article where you don't want to overrepresent one particular viewpoint but it's less salubrious in terms of art. Wikipedia works in part because the articles are measured against an already extant idea. However one feels about the American Revolution, I think we can all agree that George Washington was an important figure in it. Hence if we saw the Wikipedia article on the revolution and it didn't mention him once we could say that it needs editing. But if you're making a work of art there's nothing but your own creative intuition to tell you that a certain person needs to be in the picture, or what color or location the background should be, or any one of a hundred details about it.

So let's say that I, as a game designer, want to fiddle with your game. And furthermore, let's assume that I'm as good at game design as I think I am. (Please?) I dig through your rules, play a couple games and send you a couple suggestions. At a minimum you have to decide whether my suggestions are worth implementing. If you don't spurn them outright you have to play a couple games with the new rules to evaluate them. In the meantime somebody else has sent in their suggestions, which also might need to be incorporated. And the two sets of changes aren't necessarily compatible. Much better if you have an already extant game, and you let people design their own variants.

(Nevermind the possibility of sabotage, I'm tempted to draw a wind power plant on a card and call it Environmental Challenge: Alternative Energy. Rules text: Destroy target bird. It'd be hard to argue that card can't exist from a rules or realism standpoint.)

What's that? You do have an existing game framework? Lemme take a look at it for a moment.

It looks... playable (There's a whole game worth of structure there, the rules don't obviously contradict. Not yet willing to state whether the game has any strategy involved, or is even fun to play). I can spot a number of issues right off the bat (Barring a well placed Environmental Challenge there seems to be no way to get much of an advantage on another player. Also, if you start with two players with their own decks building off of the same structure in the middle, what happens when someone scoops up his cards at the end and accidentally mixes an opponent's card into his deck? What if someone jostles the table and the cards move around. Was that wren half adjacent to the forest or fully so?). Fundamentally, well, I'd have to play the game before I passed final judgment.

Strategy consists of deck construction and piece placement. Piece placement is constrained by the availability of legal spots on the board and the possibility of a food chain being wiped out. Both of those can be dealt with by proper deck construction. Matter of fact, by giving it a moment's thought I've got the best deck designed. You want to hear it? Good:

8 Urban
32 Policeman's helmet

The proportion might be off but that's not important. You want it as close to 1/6 as random chance and the necessity to protect against challenges allows; each habitat can have six species next to it. You want a minimum number of habitats so that you'll go first and so that most of the cards you lay will be species. On your first turn (and most subsequent ones) discard and draw twice, then drop an Urban as your third action, or a helmet on a later turn. The discarding and drawing ("looting" in Magic the Gathering slang) allows you to bring the game to a close more quickly. The person who ends the game first has the advantage, since they'll have seen more of their deck than the opponent. Unless neither player did any looting. Since the number of cards increases by 1 each turn (losing a card to the discard makes looting neutral), there's no reason to rush putting your cards down; better to hold them in response if someone tosses an environmental challenge your way. You can always lay down your hand in the last turn or two of the game.

You'll usually win. You'll get relatively more species played (and hence victory points) because you'll always have a slot to place them on. If your opponent tries to flood your habitat you can always respond by placing another Urban next to your helmets. Go for a soccer ball pattern; you can always block a flood since any two helmets will be between two cities. That makes them much less vulnerable to attack. If your opponent isn't using the exact same deck he'll lose time and actions by trying to get his bees to connect with his helmets and his predators to eat his prey. You'll almost always have the advantage over less homogeneous decks. Nevermind the risk associated with making food chains longer than one link. (You mean all I have to do is kill the bottom link and everything else dies? At this point there is absolutely no reason to put any species higher than 1 in a competitive deck.) If your opponent does play the exact same deck then you've got a really boring game, functionally equivalent to war. Yeah, that war, with the playing cards and the fact that nobody over the age of three wants to play it, ever. Your deck even has a theme: Bridging Nature with Industry.

Please don't try to argue that people won't build competitive decks because they're not as fun. Winning is fun, and people are willing to do some pretty boring things to win. Ask any Magic player about prison decks. Well, any Magic player who played ten years ago; Magic developers have rightly tried to steer decks away from this category since then. But the point is, you can try to prevent this sort of thing by fiat and it won't work very well for you. You might be tempted to mandate deck construction into several pre-built types. If you do that you're sacrificing a lot of the inherent strengths of the TCG genre. I'd suggest that you shore up the game fundamentals before you let that happen.

Before I go, I'd also like to criticize the card design. Because this bit doesn't really fit in with the rest of the blog, and because I like criticizing things. Do you really need to put the scientific name of the species on the card? It doesn't help you identify it, the cards already have unique English names. I guess you want to teach your players these scientific names, but is that really necessary? I mean, is it ever used for anything other than technical reasons? (Or to make people look smart?) The rest of the information serves a useful game function in addition to being something worth learning, I'm not sure the scientific names pass either of those tests. And could you make the habitat information a little more prominent? I'm used to "grayed out" equaling "less important". Additionally, a number of the habitat types aren't intuitively obvious. If you saw the tundra graphic without having seen the grassland graphic first, would you be able to say definitely that it was tundra? It'd help if that was defined explicitly on the card, or at least you put a picture next to the listed terrain types at the bottom of the web page.

So bottom line, after entirely too much text, I think the Phylo project needs to do oh so much work on their game before they do anything else with it.

You're trying to build a game that does something other than just be a game. In the times that it's doing that something other the game will be less fun. Think of an Ayn Rand novel; the parts where the novel digresses from the plot into essays make the storytelling aspect of the novel function poorly. It might make her message more explicit but it does so at the risk of alienating otherwise sympathetic readers. By making your game educational you're almost certainly making it less fun. If the game isn't fun, the prospective audience won't play it. If they won't play it, they won't be educated. It's a self defeating cycle. You're focusing on the education part to the detriment of the game. But if you don't do your work on the game you won't be able to educate people with it. Furthermore, you've got to sell your game to the players as if it's only a game, or at least mostly a game. People don't buy things because it says "educational" on the package. Moms buy things because they say that, and then wonder why their kids don't play with them. Unless you're pitching the game in a way that'll interest your students they'll resent having to play the game, and they'll learn less. Your game has potential to be an effective teaching tool; you don't want to waste that potential by making a game that sucks.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Hotel Full of Bees

This is another post on Evil Genius, covering a couple mechanics that I didn't really last time. And yes, there will be discussions of hotels, possibly full of bees.

Let's start with the tourists. Your base is carved out of a mountain on some remote island. There are no local inhabitants. There's just the mountain and the sea. A dock and a helipad I guess. And yet somehow the tourists show up. They wander around for a while and leave. If in the meantime they saw something that freaked them out, they go back and raise your global heat level. With some effort you can calm them down so they won't raise your heat (keep a certain class of minion trained and available, keep an eye out for panicky Hawaiian shirts) (I should also mention there appears to be a bug that makes this part not work). As far as I can tell, there's no penalty for killing them and hiding the body.

So how do I as a player react to the tourists? Mostly I ignore them. I mean, if they get all scared yeah, I can delegate minions to calm them down, but generally they've got better things to do. If they manage to wander into my base then depending on how I'm feeling I calm them down and lead them out or I torture them to death. Not much room for a middle road there. But the consequences to me as a supervillian are pretty mild either way.

Or, I can build a hotel, as the game suggests. Spend a couple hundred thou of my hard stolen loot, but oh what a hotel! It's got drinks (free drinks, so far as I can tell. I never see a dime for providing them) and dining, a dance floor, a guy at the grand piano in the lobby. It's got an adjoining casino with roulette and craps and baccarat. The game says the varied furniture will entertain the tourists, keeping them from poking their noses in where they don't belong. I've never known the hotel to detain the tourists a quarter as effectively as the minions who staff it.

Tourism, in Evil Genius, is a poorly designed mechanic. Any mechanic which players can largely ignore should draw scrutiny as to whether it deserves to be in the game to begin with. There are more important things to pay attention to. Furthermore, dealing with them doesn't provide you a good, it only allows you to avoid a negative (and a mild one at that; half the things you do increase your world heat anyway). It's the difference between wanting to do something and having to do something. So dealing with the tourists tends to be an annoyance rather than a pleasure. And after that, the mechanic could use some balancing. I went through all this trouble to build you a nice hotel with no bees at all in it and you're not using it? I guess getting gummed up in the impact stress analyzer in my laboratory was more important.

So how could they, at the game design level fixed this? The could have made the hotels make you money. If the tourists are a positive source of income then you've got a reason to pay attention to them, to herd them out of your base rather than strap them to the laser. You'd have a reason to build the hotels. You wouldn't get so annoyed that they keep visiting your island because they represent a viable source of revenue. Which would have also saved the mechanic from irrelevance.

Revenue there would push your existing revenue streams from the world map into being less relevant but that's fine. You do enough on the world map as it is, and even assuming they took out the infinite money bug at the start of the game stealing is never the most important thing you do there.

And speaking of the world map, let's talk notoriety. Whenever you engage in an act of infamy on the world map you gain in notoriety. This has a couple effects:

As your notoriety goes up, you can recruit more henchmen. The world powers send more powerful agents to your island. At predetermined levels the powers send superagents to your island. (Superagents roughly translate to the protagonists you'd find in other, less villain centric stories.) And occasionally you have to reach a certain notoriety to pass an objective.

The problem with the mechanic is it gives you very little to go out of your way to commit those acts of infamy. I mean, if you figure the henchmen you get are about equivalent to the superagents (an arguable point, but take it for the sake of argument for now.), and if the more powerful agents aren't that much of a problem, then at best you're getting a neutral deal by raising your notoriety. A neutral basis doesn't give you the incentive to go out there and neuter that panda.

If you just did a spit take, well, let me explain. Inasmuch as the game provides many, many openings for making fun of the mechanics, they really did fine with the writing. These acts of infamy you engage in as an Evil Genius are, well, cartoonish supervillainry. They include stuffing fish with radio beacons to overtax a sonar system, blowing up a Russian vodka distillery, very publicly executing a boy band mid performance, stealing a solid gold Buddha statue and replacing it with a solid brass one, replacing an ivory supply with elephant squeaky toys just before the forces of justice descend on it and so forth. My favorite is, of course, neutering the worlds only panda that's interested in breeding.

But the point is that engaging in these diabolic acts form a large part of the reason you want to be an Evil Genius. They're the draw for the market. That and the whole conquering the world thing, which doesn't enter into this discussion. Doing them isn't easy; you have to mold your minion base into the appropriate form and then keep them alive on the map long enough to finish the objective. I wish the game gave you more reward for them than a high notoriety, or at least more reward for a high notoriety.

Some of the acts of infamy also get you a loot item; those I'm fine with. At least you get the Ark of the Covenant to use as a coffee table. That doesn't mean the other type works. The game should do more to encourage people to go after giant pandas with a hedge clipper.

One final mechanic: traps.

Again the game hits this one out of the park in terms of the creative aspect. You get to build pirahna tanks, trapdoors into furnaces, tesla coils and all manner of fiendish devices with which to baffle your foe. Which is great. The trouble is that the traps tend to have a number of annoying downsides.

First off, you'll catch plenty of minions in them. While this cultivates a properly evil sense of outrage (I spent a lot of time teaching that mook quantum mechanics and he goes and gets himself stuck on the sawblades. Why am I surrounded by idiots?), a sense of outrage isn't the feeling I expect to get when I'm playing my videogames, however evil. And however remote you make the trap, your minions will go poking around it, potentially setting it off or being near it when an agent sets it off. Somebody has to clean up the bodies, after all. And you'd better hope the agents get killed by it, if they somehow manage to survive (blast them!), they'll find the motion detector and blow it up, making traps expensive to maintain.

The traps themselves are fun, and in a rare case of getting the incentives right the game awards you small amounts of cash which get bigger the more traps an agent sets off at once. You're not in it for the money, but it's nice to know someone appreciates your art. My favorite trap is, of course, the beehive. Stepping in the wrong place and getting chased by swarms of malevolent, genetically engineered superbees? Awesome.

Which brings me to the title. The Hotel Full of Bees. This latest time playing through the game (for all I complain, I do seem to play it) I built a lavish base with all the amenities, including two sets of backup generators. I built two hotels with all the amenities even though they're largely useless. I then built a third, decoy hotel. Full of Bees. Which is, as they say, pretty much what it says on the tin. Rather than constructing the usual bar and rooms and all the hotel contains nothing but motion detectors, pressure sensitive tiles, laser trip beams and roughly fifty beehives.

Literally dozens and dozens of agents and tourists have wandered in only to come running out pursued by swarms of bees.

I still haven't stopped laughing about it.

It's a Hotel. Full of Bees.

Now that's the kind of supervillainry I signed up for.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Realism, and why not to

To start off, "Realism" means that you're conforming your game mechanics to how you think reality works. Usually realism is good and necessary, but sometimes it'll get in the way of making an Awesome Game. What I'm going to do here is I'm going to try to explore that distinction.

To start with, is realism necessary? Yes. yes it is. Moving on... oh right, the reasons. To start with, realism allows your players to grasp on to something, which helps them understand the game. If I told you I was making a game where, all else being equal, the side with the fewest soldiers won a battle you'd be rightfully skeptical. Our experience with wars and the way the world works tells us that it doesn't happen that way, so I'd better have a darned good reason for running it that way in the game.

Furthermore, people expect a certain level of realism. They'll suspend disbelief on the points you tell them to, but otherwise they expect the world to act like, well, like they'd expect. My Grandpa watches reruns of Bonanza. One day we were watching one and he says to me "why does that Indian have Little Joe's horse?" Now he knows and I know and you know that it's just a TV show, that they've got constrained budgets and that when they need a bunch of mounted Indians they have to borrow some mounts from regular cast members who aren't on screen at the moment. But seeing the horse where it oughtn't be breaks the illusion and makes us unhappy.

Suspension of disbelief isn't a bad thing mind you. Far from it! But you've got to manage it well. People are going to accept all sorts of things that they know can't happen in real life, but you can't abuse that trust. You've always gotta make it sound plausible, and you've gotta be careful about contraditions in your internal logic. (Like that horse. No plot reason for it to be under that Indian.) Suspending disbelief doesn't hurt your realism, but breaking that suspension does.

Take Super Mario Bros. as an example. We understand that jumping on things heads is generally bad for the thing being jumped on. We understand that falling in pits of lava is generally fatal. We know that jumping on things with spikes or upwards facing jaws are probably going to hurt us more. And, while we might be a little fuzzy on why a hundred coins equal an extra life, we know that collecting coins is good, because we want to do so in the rest of our lives. All of these mechanics make sense from a realism perspective, even if they're expressed in a very unrealistic game.

Except for that 100 coins bit. Why does it give you an extra life? Well, this one is harder to justify based on our expectations of reality. I can tell you why it's in there, it makes for good gameplay. We want to collect the coins anyway, so they give us a bonus for collecting the coins. Collecting coins is fun, getting a bonus is fun, doing both is more fun and so the mechanic is added. Realism will be ignored when the result makes the game a better game to play. Come to think of it, who ever told you that you'd get 3+ tries at life, depending on how many mushrooms and coins you collected?

Thus you have two forces pulling in different directions when you're designing your game. Realism makes your game easier to understand, and furthermore people expect it. But fun often constrains you to make mechanics that aren't very realistic, for the sake of making the game playable. Take Evil Genius, for example. I was arguing in my previous post that the research system might be more realistic, but it was less fun. In that case it seems to me that they went too far towards the realism side of things. I, on the other hand, tend to err towards the other side of things; less realism, more action, which doesn't necessarily make it more fun.

Let's talk about the Terrible Secret of Space for a moment. I spent a while figuring out how to run all the orbital mechanics. I think I'm going to ignore almost entirely liftoff from planetary surface. Why the distinction? Because having planets and distances change dynamically over the course of the game gives an interesting battlefield, which changes from turn to turn. But dealing with liftoff from a planetary surface just adds complication to the game without much in the way of interesting mechanics, strategic decisions or so forth. So I spend time dealing with the one and nearly none dealing with the other.

But what does Realism have to do with all of that? I court realism with the movement mechanics (Remember, they're all based off of physics) because it gets me what I want; an interesting game. I couldn't make a variable board like that without realism because I wouldn't have a mental hook to hang it's movements on. But I'm avoiding realism with the liftoff questions because as far as I can tell it adds complications without adding anything of value.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Evil Genius; or; they finally made a video game out of my life.

Today I'm going to go into (at length!) everything that's wrong with the game Evil Genius.

If you've never played it, Evil Genius sets you up as a James Bond supervillian trying to take over the world. Ten out of ten gold stars for concept. They also do a number of other things really well; the music is excellent, and the animation looks good. Real good. They're problems come mostly from gameplay. And the interface.

So, as a mastermind with less than unimpeachable morals, you get two kinds of underlings, hereafter referred to as Henchmen and Minions. Henchmen are the named bad guys with a shtick of some sort. Think Oddjob from Goldfinger; Short, Korean, almost entirely mute and kills his enemies by throwing a fedora with a metal brim. Or Jaws with his sharp metal teeth. Basically this covers any subvillain who actually has a name.

Minions, on the other hand, are nameless, faceless drones in suits. Think the members of the axe gang. Or the jumpsuited figures defending Blofeld's crater base in You Only Live Twice. Or the blue suited Koreans taking out Ft. Knox in Goldfinger. The game rightfully sees and exploits this relationship, giving you few henchmen with powerful and useful abilities and many less important minions it does give the minions names, but in hours and hours of playing the game the names have never been relevant in the slightest, so I ignore them. Therefore I'm crediting them with proper application of the trope, in a subtle manner.

The trouble is though, you can't actually order your minions around. All you can do is suggest. So if you want someone to build you a detention cell, you don't find a construction worker and ask. You specify an order that the detention cell be built, and a minion will proceed to do that. If you want an enemy agent killed, all you have to do is say "Who will rid me of this troublesome fool?" and someone will rush to the job.

Which has it's problems. Your foes with kill tags, and anyone who sees it will go running to do the deed. Now, your union thug with a spanner might think he's pretty tough, but when he's facing down half a dozen warriors with their rifles, well, he don't look so good. And thanks to the fact that you can't order the minions around singly or in groups, each individual person sees that tag in order, and goes rushing in like he's Bruce Lee and gets drilled full of holes.

It's true that they get guns. You have to convince them to use them, though. Y'see, even your big bad mercenaries don't wander the base carrying. You have to set up a yellow alert and then they'll go and pick up guns from your gun racks. If they're not otherwise too busy. And even if they have the guns, unless they see the enemy at a distance they'll still run in and try to tap dance on faces with their fists. And even if you get them shooting at a distance then they're still going their lonesome against a squad of computerized opponents who are working together. Which is more than you can manage by merely offering your minions suggestions.

My favorite in this regard are the marksman type minions. After you spend oh so much time training them up, they wander your base carrying their huge rifles. And then they find someone that needs killing, and they run up and poke 'em in the jaw because they haven't figured out what it means to be a sniper. Idiots.

Which brings me to another point. Training. You want a marksman? You gotta train a mercenary, which you gotta train from a guard, which you gotta train from a construction worker. You get one construction worker every sixty seconds (more if you pay), and they upgrade on the same "whenever they get it in their minds to do so" way. So you wait and wait and wait until that marksman get to the third tier and then he gets it in his head that he's reincarnated Cassius Clay and, well, frustrating would be a light way to describe it.

Come to think of it, waiting is pretty much the order of the day in this game. You send people onto the world map and you wait for them to steal. They get a certain amount every sixty seconds, but you don't get it immediately, you have to wait for a minion to run to the helicopter pad on the far side of the islands and pick it up for you. Which lets them get killed along the way and surrender their precious precious gold to the forces of justice who are just going to spend it on carbon credits anyway.

But the waiting, yeah I'm getting to that. So, you recruit minions on a time basis. you train up better minions on a time basis. You earn your cash from the world on a time basis. When the world gets angry at you (and they do, often), then if you just wait a little while the heat will die down and they'll stop sending their better agents to your island. If you just wait a little longer maybe your scientists will research some better stuff for you. I'm not saying that limiting actions by time is a terrible thing in general, but if you trend all of your incentives that way then you end up with the player sitting at his computer and waiting. And not having fun, because doing any of the interesting stuff requires him to wait oh so much longer.

Oh yeah, research. In most games you tell your minions what you want discovered, and they proceed to discover it. After giving you perfect estimates as to cost and time. not really realistic. In this game you have your scientist minions wandering your base and looking at stuff. Eventually, one of them gets some inspiration, and you can have him research that object. It's more realistic admittedly, but there are two problems; one is that you're never sure that the scientists have researched everything, they might have just overlooked something. The other is, if you're going for a specific object then you're completely at the mercy of the clock. You gotta wait. There are a number of objects that I'd really like to research before I build a second base, and so again I delay blowing up my first one as long as possible for that to happen.

I understand that you need something to stretch the game out. I mean, if I dropped $40 for the game even at the discounted price I'm expecting hours of entertainment out of that box. But if all you can manage is three hours, there's no need to put me through all that waiting to stretch it out to eight ten twelve hours. I can think of several novels that do this; For Whom the Bell Tolls comes to mind first.

There are a couple of interface problems, of varying seriousness. The first time I played through the game I never found out how to save the game manually; Saving games is under "Load Save" which I assumed was only for loading saved games. And the annoying announcer lady is almost entirely superfluous. I dunno about that though; maybe I'm a skilled enough gamer that I don't need her reminding me that a security door has been breached, or that I don't have minions available to start building that right away. It might be for the ten year olds who may or may not be playing the game.

There's also an annoying one on the minion screen. When you order minions you have to specify the number of minions you're ordering in that type. So I might have on the one tree fifteen guards, ten mercenaries and five marksmen. If I don't have any mercenaries or marksmen, then it won't let me order more marksmen, the box where I specify the number is blanked out. Let's say I had that tree filled, and then in an intense bit of combat I lost all of it. On my minion report I'd have listed 00/15 guards, and the other two would be blacked out. But the number of minions ordered in those slots wouldn't zero out, I'd still have fifteen minions ordered that I couldn't possibly get rid of until I found a way to get more guards. So I'm stuck with an annoyingly low cap on the number of construction workers. Yeah, it's happened to me before. A couple of times.

And speaking of which, let's get to the AI glitches that allow you to lose your entire minion force in just one assault. I mean beyond their reluctance to use guns and go it alone attitude. If you've got a squad of soldiers assaulting your base, only your soldiers and construction workers will attempt to attack them. The social and scientific minions will generally ignore them. Theoretically this helps you by not having those guys rush off to get themselves killed. In practice it tends to mean they wander by the soldiers and get killed anyway.

Suppose they set a part of your base on fire. Not an uncommon occurrence. Your valet minions see "the base is on fire!" and run for the fire extinguisher. They then run to the trouble spot and valiantly try to put out the fire, and get gunned down mercilessly. Maybe they even put the fire out first. Then your next valet sees "oh no, there's a fire extinguisher just laying there. How unclean!" and goes to tidy up. And gets gunned down like an Indian at Wounded Knee. Or maybe you managed to kill one of the soldiers. You've got a body bag that needs moving. And you've got the minions who want to move it for you. So your higher ranking scientific and social staff will calmly walk into a battle, attempt to pick up a body bag and walk on out. Naturally, they also get gunned down mercilessly. It wouldn't be so bad if you could JUST TELL THEM NOT TO GO THERE but you CAN'T because you're not allowed to give direct orders to your minions. No, I'm not frustrated, why do you ask?

As a lesser criticism, the game doesn't really have that many options for player actions. You can: capture and interrogate someone, commit an act of infamy on the world map, defend your island against intruders, and research something. None of them are really strong enough to make a game out of themselves, like 'Kill all the orcs" is for Warcraft. (err, the RTS Warcraft games; not WoW). They do ok with it, the storyline has you do each a couple times. It's good enough for one playthrough, but it doesn't exactly help the replayability. And it stretches my suspension of disbelief when people just randomly show up at your island. (A Russian Cosmonaut, a handful of diplomats, a crime boss, that sort of thing).

Bottom line I've got two main criticisms of the game. First; it doesn't allow you control over a major determinant as to whether you win or lose. By not allowing you to control minions directly the game forces you to watch in frustration as they do things that just aren't optimal. That's not fun. Secondly, it overly incentivises wasting time. Since the major limitation on your resources since you can shore up your defenses by adding time, you end up taking much longer to complete portions of the game than you would had you been playing at your own speed. Like drinking watered down wine, this makes the game less fun.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Resources, and acquiring them

So, in my last post I talked about four methods of acquiring resources. Or at least I named four and then completely and utterly failed to talk about the fourth one. To refresh your memory, the four classes of mechanics that board games use to replenish people's resources are as follows:

1) Fixed Rewards -- That is, you get the same amount of resources each turn regardless of or with very little dependence on your board position.
2) Random Rewards -- That is, the amount of resources you acquire each turn depends on a random factor, a die roll or drawing a particular card.
3) IPC Rewards -- That is, you get your resources based for the most part on your board position.
4) Weird Rewards -- Or anything not covered by the previous three categories, which are pretty broad.

There also a fifth category that I hadn't thought of when I was writing my previous categories:

5) Quest Rewards -- Resources granted for achieving a specific in game objective.

Ok then, let's get... what's that? You're not happy with me just saying it's the miscellaneous category? Ok, ok, I'll feed you a couple examples now before blathering on more about theory. How about a nice game of Chess? Since in Chess you never get more than your original forces then I'm listing this as NO replenishment of resources and therefore putting it in the weird category. Which is a bit unfair to Chess, after all it was around long before the other games I'm discussing. (Ignore pawn promotion for now. Please?) The money disbursement mechanic in Junta provides another example; one person gets the cash for all the players and distributes it accordingly.

But let's get back to my entirely too theoretical treatment of the subject. I want to properly define "resource". It is sort of a difficult concept. A resource is anything that you can use to win, exchange for something you use to win, or produce more resources with. It encompasses: Pieces on the board, currency, cards in hand, victory points, certain kinds of spaces on the board, and special abilities. And probably a heck of a lot of other things that I can't think of right now. A queen in Chess is a resource, it helps you to win. A $500 bill in Monopoly is a resource, it can be exchanged for properties which help you to win. A country in Axis and Allies is a resource, it produced IPCs, which are a resource as they can be exchanged for armies that help you to win. You dig?

One more thing to point out before we get into the list of examples: One game usually has multiple types of resources, and they have a tendency to replenish in different ways. And one mechanic might replenish resources with more than one of the general methods I mentioned above.

But let's get to that list of examples. Starting with category one:

1) Fixed Rewards: War. Yeah, that War, the card game where you flip over one card at a time, winner takes em all and you'll never ever finish the game because it takes so bloody long, and it's just a rote task that gives you no choices whatsoever and doesn't even entertain you with picture of Candy. Which also works as an example. In each game, you get one card per turn, period.

Fixed Rewards show up in all sorts of games that are actually interesting to play. ("Interesting" for anyone over, say, 10 years of age). They make up for the boring resource acquisition by other interesting choices, or they have other resources that replenish with a different rule. In RISK for example, the payout you get for the cards you turn in is essentially fixed, only depending on how long you're able to wait out your opponents. In Magic: the Gathering you draw one card per turn, but that card can do so many things...

Fixed rewards also encompass rewards schemes that vary within a framework dependent on the game rules and not on elements of chance or actions of the players. In the game Empire Builder the reward for picking up and delivering a load is based on the distance traveled. Despite the fact that this changes from card to card and the value granted changes as well it's essentially fixed.

2) Random rewards: Slot machines. You put your nickel in, you pull the lever and you get a random number of nickels out, usually zero. Most casino games are based on this, with the exception of things like Poker, where you're also playing the other players. (The payout isn't uniquely dependent on the cards, it also depends heavily on the actions of other players).

Random rewards show up in a lot of places as a hybrid with the others. Randomness can make games more fair, or at least make it that way. You might be in a losing position, but if Lady Luck sends her smiles then maybe you'll pull it off. Those times make for great stories. It's also the case that games that have a basically random mechanic which is changeable by good strategy. Take Settlers of Catan: The resource cards are distributed by die roll each turn, but by proper placement of your cities and by clever building of new settlements you can greatly affect how much and what resources you have available. Alternately, I can think of a number of Magic decks that take a seemingly random resource and make it less so. (The cascade combo decks, anything with counterbalance/top, or any really consistent aggro deck if you'll allow just high percentages.)

3) IPC Rewards: Axis and Allies. You figure the game that I get the name from has to come up. In A&A, you own territories, each with a number on it. Whenever you end a turn in control of that territory, you get that many IPCs, which you trade in at the start of your next turn for various weapons of war with which to do in your foes. RISK works similarly; you get armies every turn based on the territories you control. Note that this often operates indirectly. In Monopoly, if you have a lot of money you can buy a lot of properties which gets you more money...

The benefit of using IPC Rewards in a game is that it gives you a really great lever for shaping the game the way you like. In the game I was talking about last time I wanted people to engage in more fighting, so I gave it an IPC basis to reward conquest. It also gives advantages to players who put more strategic thought into the game; if a small decision about resources now means a bigger change in resources later then the game rewards the strategic player who actually takes the time to think this out. Since a lot people play board games as a form of intellectual competition, this is important.

4) Weird Rewards. "Oh thank you for that... Sporran. I'll wear it whenever I feel like prancing about in a skirt and I need a purse." Err... that's not it. Weird rewards aren't unified by any major principle, so the best I can do for you is list off a couple of them. In the game Power Grid the resource market replenishes at a fixed rate, but since the price of resources varies with the purchases of the other players I'm going to list this one as weird. Not to say it isn't an interesting mechanic. In Dungeons and Dragons the resources granted to the players are done entirely at the whim of the Dungeon Master. Not that D&D really compares that easily with other board games, but I might as well put that here.

5) Quest Rewards. Two words: King me. While I'd normally list Chess and Checkers as weird for their zero resource replenishment, the ability of pawns to be promoted and the possibility of turning checkers pieces into kings actually constitute a net increase of resources. Quest Rewards cover any situation where completing a specific, pre programmed action in a game gives you the rewards. In the game Shadows Over Camelot you see this frequently, whenever players turn in quests. Some of the newer individual Magic cards also fall under this category; Planeswalkers with their ultimate abilities, or the new Rise of the Eldrazi cards with the leveling mechanic.

Well, that's about all I've got to say about this right now. I've got this sinking feeling that I'm leaving stuff out, but I'm gonna ignore that. For now.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Kyrgyzstan, a land of too many consonants.

There's been a revolution in Kyrgyzstan. Without knowing anything at all about who's revolting and why (cue the revolting puns), the question is, what do you know about Kyrgyzstan? As it happens, I think I know a little more than most who haven't ever set foot in Asia:

Yes, it's in Asia. It's in the northern part of Central Asia, where all the countries end in "stan". It's capital is Bishkek, formerly known as Frunze when Kyrgyzstan was part of the Soviet union (it was renamed for Mikhail Frunze, a comrade of Lenin's). Despite being a former SSR, Kyrgyzstan emerged with no soviet defense industries after the breakup of the soviet union. It's possible it still has ICBM silos or whatnot; for some reason people don't like publishing those locations on the internet...

It's main strategic relevance in the region hinges around an American airbase. The airbase we need for the dropping of bombs upon Afghanistan. Otherwise it's the standard USSR satellite politics; America tries for increasing relevance in the region, Russia tries to keep America out of it's back yard, and the country in question tries to play both of us for the loot. With the added complication that the country is predominantly Muslim and therefore we should also be worried about the establishment of yet another thuggish shariah theocracy in the region. Economically, it's yet another third world basket case.

So how do I know all this? Well, I'm building a board game with a world war taking place in Asia, and all of this has come up in the research. (Well, except for the bit about Frunze. I've played another board game with Frunze listed as a city, and we keep making jokes about it: "Frunze, is like your Amerikan Fonz, no? Is much better. Fonz hits jukebox, plays decadent rock and role. Frunze hits jukebox, plays Internationale for the edification of glorious worker revolution." Yeah, communism jokes, always funny.)

So now that I'm done bragging (if you believe that I've got a bridge to sell), let's actually spend some time talking about game design. As I mentioned, I've been building a world war type board game in Asia. One of the basic mechanics you've got to work out when you're building that sort of game is "how do players replenish their units?" There are a couple ways to do this; fixed rewards, random rewards, IPCs, or something weirder.

Fixed rewards means that you always get the same number of resources every turn. On the plus side this has very few memory or upkeep issues; as long as you remember how much you're supposed to get, you're ok. The downside is that this is relatively boring.

Randomizing rewards offers all the thrill and excitement of a craps game. The trouble is, if it isn't a game of craps then you're getting less of the effect; games of chance grip our interest proportionally to the amount we have wagered on them. If you're going for higher wagers, then the slots in Vegas will give you more action than any board game. Well, any board game that you aren't wagering on.

The third option is the IPC route. IPC stands for "Industrial Production Certificate", and is the unit of currency in Axis & Allies. Broadly speaking, IPC compensation is any method of resource generation that's proportional to resources that you already have. That's a bit of a concept, so let me start with the examples.

In RISK you acquire resources in the form of armies, generally tied to the amount of territory you already own. The specific rule is one soldier per three countries, with some modifications (rounding, continents, etc.) In Axis and Allies, each country comes with a number on it, and at the end of every turn you get that many IPCs if you control that country.

The downside of the IPC method of distributing resources is that it's more complicated; you have to count up the amount received every turn, you have to remember the rules governing that sort of thing. It isn't exactly intuitive that you round down your armies in RISK, or that you can never receive less than three. If the turns are short, then the constant computing and upkeep gets on your nerves.

The upside is that going with the IPC method allows you all sorts of mechanics that you can use to fine tune game play. For example, in both RISK and Axis and Allies you can increase your resource acquisition rate by conquering new territories. Players will naturally want to use their armies for something, but if conquest is just a waste of manpower, then they'll be unhappy about conquering. If you make conquest a way to shore up your strategic position, people will be able to make the fun move while knowing it's the right move. They'll have more fun, and that's really the whole point of the game, isn't it?

So what's all that have to do with the price of tea in China? Or more specifically, the price of Oil, Tanks and Guns in Kyrgyzstan? Well, I prefer the IPC system, and I've been building a war game in Asia. So I'm trying to figure out how many IPCs to assign to each space. Which means I've been doing my research on all the little stanistans, and therefore I know a think or two about the latest third world sinkhole experiencing a violent upset. Wasn't expecting that at all.

(For the record, Kyrgyzstan is added to neighboring Tajikistan because the two of them together make a better board space. Seriously, look at that sinuous border, I don't want to have to draw that, or figure out which piece is where mid game. Together they add up to one measly IPC. Not exactly the economic powerhouses of asia.)

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Kzinti Lesson

That is, the power of a spacedrive is directly proportional to it's efficiency as a weapon.

From The Atomic Rockets of the Space Patrol, a truly excellent resource for this sort of thing:

"Jon's Law for SF authors is closely related to Niven's Kzinti Lesson. It states: 'Any interesting space drive is a weapon of mass destruction. It only matters how long you want to wait for maximum damage.' It goes on to say: 'Interesting is equal to "whatever keeps the [players] from getting bored"'."

In my last post I figured out that allowing my ships to accelerate at a base speed of 1/10th g allows them to get from planet to planet in an "interesting" amount of time. The thing is though, this forces my hand for some other things.

Let's say that a very small spaceship weighs about as much as a tank. A quick google search tells me that a M1A1 Abrams tank weighs about 60 tons. If we accelerate that for two weeks (about the minimum that we could use and still have interplanetary travel with those engines), and we could get our spacetank up to some ungodly velocity, which on impact would leave a crater just about as large as the biggest atom bomb we've yet built.

We need ships to be able to accelerate that much to be able to move about the solar system at an interesting speed. But using gigantic kinetic weapons isn't constrained to spaceships, giant space rocks work just as well. So what exactly stops our prospective alien invaders from just dropping asteroids on anything with a heat signature and taking over? That isn't just a rhetorical question, at some point we've got to have a satisfactory answer to it or we'll end up with a very short, very uninteresting game.

Ok, to start with we've got a technical restriction. You remember that bit about accelerating it for about two weeks? Yeah, it builds up a heckuva lotta momentum, but it means that whoever you're flinging your spaceship (or giant rock) at has about two weeks to do something about it. If you're trying to hit a spaceship it might be able to dodge. If you're hitting a relatively stationary target like a planet, then they might be able to deflect it before it hits. Of course, if you're willing to wait, you can start flinging your rock from the far side of Alpha Centauri, and if you can keep the engines on then you'll get it up to some insane fraction of the speed of light so the we on the receiving end would have little warning and fewer options to deal with it. That is, if we didn't see it accelerating to begin with; even from a distance we've got a shot at seeing it, and therefore doing something about it before it's too late.

There's also a practical reason to not beat a planet down with a merciless hail of asteroids. If you do, you're ruining a whole ton of useful infrastructure, from the networks of roads to the biosphere itself. The soon to be conquered inhabitants have even flagged the major deposits of gold by building mines over them. And storing the refined gold in convenient lockboxes like Ft. Knox. If you dropped a hunk of rock on Ft. Knox then you'd have to go through the work of finding and refining all that gold all over again.

There's another reason; we don't like bombing civilians. Now, our godless alien invaders might not balk at the mass slaughter of an entire alien species, but maybe they would. Maybe they'd prefer to merely conquer and occupy our nations, rather than murder us wholesale. But, at the end, I'd prefer not to rely on the benefices of an alien species. Inasmuch as it makes convenient dramatic arcs, I'd rather not drop a sudden lesson in the end about "can't we all just get along?" You can take this as a promise that the aliens will still stay evil and alien until the end of the game. But they might not be entirely amoral.

Of course, before I actually go about limiting this sort of weapon, I should really ask why. I mean, if we're fighting a war, we want to win, right? So should I really be arbitrarily setting the power of the weapons I'm using to destroy the enemy? Yes, yes I should. If the war is fought with weapons that can quickly and easily destroy the other side, then there's very little point to actually playing the game. "Let's play Global Thermonuclear War". I will now, and in the future, make decisions by nothing more than fiat that I think will make the game better.

Well, not technically by fiat. I'd much rather figure a way to explain why this doesn't work for in game reasons than just make it a rule. So, I'd rather go down the list above:

1) For small, maneuverable targets it's relatively easy to dodge this sort of thing. As long as the target can accelerate faster than the projectile. Once you've dodged, they'll have to slow down before they could try again with that weapon.

2) For capital ships I'm not really sure. Assuming that larger ships accelerate more slowly (not necessarily true until I figure out the specifics of the handwavium drive, but probably true) then you'll be able to maneuver your projectile faster than the ship can dodge, which makes for a relatively easy and cheap way to pick off capital ships. I'll have to think about it. Let me know if you come up with anything.

3) For planet cracking weapons the evil invading alien doesn't want to mess up their soon to be conquered infrastructure. So no relativistic projectiles smashing the planet entirely, no dropping huge rocks on the planet and messing up the biosphere.

4) This still leaves room open for smaller, targeted strikes. All you need is a rock large enough to not completely burn up on the way down, and maybe shape it so that it doesn't drift too far off course, and you've got a hell of a bomber. Witness "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" by Heinlein. Again, this still needs work.

I'm not sure, but I'm thinking that I'll need to come up with some sort of defensive measure that larger ships and ground installations can use to fend off these sorts of attacks. Jury's still out.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Across the solar system in a few short weeks!

Today I sat down and figured out the math for traveling across the solar system in a torch ship. The results are promising indeed. I'll try to keep the equations out of the main bit, posting that stuff further along.

If you'll recall my previous post on the subject, I'm building a board game that models an interstellar war taking place in our solar system. Right now I'm building a movement mechanic for the game; how long it takes ships to jet around the solar system. It's more difficult than just drawing lines on a board; I intend for the planets to move, and hence for the distances to change. Which means it might take you one turn to go from Mercury to Venus on a particular turn, but three at a later date. Neat, huh? So this is where I've got how to get the different times and whatnot worked out.

You can get the time it takes if you know the distance between the planets, and how fast the ships can accelerate. You can figure the distance between the planets from the law of cosines, which requires the distance from the planet to the sun and the angle between them. That I can get myself pretty easily.

Of course, we've got to ask the position of the planets too. knowing the distance from the sun and the time it takes for them to get around, you can work out how far they go in a given period of time and how much their angle changes.

I just got done setting up an excel spreadsheet with the data and formulas. By updating the turn number I can automatically calculate the time required to travel between planets. I can even vary this by changing the acceleration of the ship.

Which brings up a valid question: how fast should the ships accelerate?

Now, if you're running a luxury liner between planets, your ideal acceleration is going to be 1g. That is, the force of gravity at Earth's surface. It gives exactly the right weight so all the luxuries of Earth life work as they should; from bubbling champagne to toilets. Of course, I'm not really concerned with the creature comforts of my pieces, so I'm going to set the ship's acceleration based on what's best for the game.

Err... what is best for the game? As it turns out, one g doesn't work really well. At the speeds that lets you transverse the solar system, the planets barely move at all. Of course, that leads to the still further question: what rate do I want the planets to revolve at?

Ok, Ok, I'll start actually answering the questions. I figure the game will run in real time for one turn a week for about a year, and lacking anything better to base it off of, I figure one turn a week in game time ought to do it to. That means that Earth will revolve once every fifty two turns, Mercury will go around every twelve and a half turns and so forth. Backsolving, I find that I get a reasonable number of turns between planets if I make ships accelerate at one tenth g. Neat, huh?

So what kind of board does this result in? Well, it's always changing. It doesn't work much like a traditional board; the spaces between planets are dynamically generated each turn. Physically that means that I'll have to construct a board that I can change whenever I please. I'm thinking a sheet of black felt with some sort of velcro planets. Or something. I'll need a new photograph of the board each turn. Which I probably would want to provide anyway, what with moving pieces and all. Mechanically it also offers interesting results; Mercury goes around the sun every twelve and a half spaces. Half spaces? Madness. The hope is, of course, that the varying playing field will offer interesting strategic possibilities. If it doesn't do that much then all of this is an exercise in math, nothing more.

Another thing I'm free to choose is the starting locations of the planets. Imagine the solar system with the warp gate at the top. Just below it is Jupiter's orbit (remember I'm ignoring places beyond), then Mars and so forth. I can star the planets at any point in their orbits. Earth will rotate once by the end of the game, so I'm going to start it as close to the warp gate as I can get. That way it'll range outward at the start, but get closer and closer as the game draws to the end, hopefully fueling dramatic last battles. Mars starts around the bottom right corner, by the end of the game it'll have moved to the bottom left corner. Jupiter will subtend a small arc towards the top of the board. Not having to work with the entirety of their orbits means I can discard a lot of empty space, allowing the board to look a lot more like the golden ratio rectangle than a square. Venus will revolve one and a half times, Mercury four times by the game's end. I'm not sure where I want them to start and finish. Yet.

From here on out I'm talking about the physics. you've been warned.

A torch ship accelerates halfway, then decelerates the rest of the way. Since we're looking for time, we use the equation t=sqrt(2d/a), only we work for half the distance for the first part; t=sqrt(d/a). Multiply that by two and you get the time for a given distance and acceleration: t=2*sqrt(d/a)

The distance between two planets we can get from the law of cosines:

Where the angle is the difference between the angle of each planet with some standard. Excel wants the angle in radians, which I'm completely fine with. I'm basing angles off of an imaginary line pointing east. (Think the usual map convention, the warp gate in the north, Mars starts in the east and rotates counterclockwise to the west.)

From the revolution period of the planets we can figure out the distance planets move in a single week, and hence the angle they subtend. With that weekly angular movement, and assuming that the distance to the sun stays constant, and with the starting position of the planets we can set up a formula that'll calculate their position and the distance between them (and therefore travel time) from the turn number alone.

Which really makes my job easier; I just have to translate the excel spreadsheet data to the map itself.

Now for the stuff that I'm not bothering to model:
1) There's a difference between starting and finishing velocity. Since the planets rotate at different rates, you have to take that into account when plotting your orbital course. The problem is, you make the change by accelerating or decelerating for slightly longer, and I don't know how to run the math to find the optimum switching point. I'm pretty sure I could figure it out given an hour with my mechanics book, but I don't feel like going to that trouble. Yet.

2) While I'm at it, Planet's aren't standing still waiting for you to arrive. They'll have traveled some distance in the meantime, which I'm not accounting for. I feel like I've forgotten so much physics...

2) As it turns out, I'm going to have to do a lot of rounding. Should be pretty obvious from the fact that none of these are going to come out exactly even. While I think I'm going to go with standard rounding (except that nothing will round to zero time traveled) I might want to deal with the different planet velocities; say if you're going the wrong way then it gets rounded up, otherwise rounded down.

3) None of this deals with getting around the sun; it assumes you can take a path straight through. How close we get to the sun is limited by the design of the spaceships. At some point I think I might deal with this; setting an arbitrary rule "you can't get closer to the sun than Mercury, go around". I don't think it'll change gameplay that much, although it might lead to headaches in the logistics department.

4) I'm arbitrarily setting planetary locations. Since we can predict the planet's locations, I guess I could come up with a start date that roughly matches my intended era with my intended starting configuration. Plus points for realism, minus points for difficulty. I really don't know how to go about figuring it, and my astronomy book has been lost longer than my mechanics book.

5) As I mentioned, I'm assuming the planets orbit in perfect circles. No way in hell am I going to do the math with ellipses.