Sunday, August 29, 2010

Port of Call, part I

Today, we talk about Port of call, a game that my uncle from the weird branch of the family designed some decades past.

I have the surviving materials of the game, two pieces of plywood with the world map drawn on them, and a bag of hand crafted wooden ships and cargo tokens. Oh, and a couple dice. There is no surviving copy of the rules, which I'm told is perfectly fine. They never had a really complete copy of the rules anyway, and they figure the rules could use some work anyway.

The game board is a map of the world, showing various ports on the various continents. Lines connect the cities, with spaces demarkated. The Panama Canal clearly displays the price to go through it-- $3000, which I'm told is unrealistically low. Oh, and there's a pirate, which I divine from the fact that the "Pirate Route" is clearly labelled on the map, including direction arrows and the "Pirate turns around" space. For some reason, the priate doesn't just hang around Somalia.

Possibly because the game was made before Somali Pirates were an issue. We can date the game partially by the fact that one of the "continents" is actuallly the Soviet Union, with Leningrad and all it's -istani SSRs. Redesigning the board, my first impulse might be to break up the old CCCP and dename Leningrad back to St. Petersburg, to bring the game up to date. On the other hand, period isn't critical to this sort of game; having it set a couple decades past doesn't require any other changes to be made, and there's a certain nostalgia for the cold war tensions. Frankly, I think a nuclear Iran is more likely to drop the bomb on someone than the old Soviets were. Well, except for Stalin; I wouldn't put it past him. That guy wasn't right in the head, to put it mildly.

Where was I? Stalin, the bomb, Nuclear Iran, cold war, CCCP, Somali Pirates.... oh yeah! I was talking about the game. Let's get back to that.

The major theme of the game is international shipping. You need to take cargoes from one port to another. Ok, that's a pretty solid basis for a game, there are a number like that already, although mostly I've played train variants on that theme. So let's look into what you need to run a game of that sort. You need an origin point, you need a destination, you need to be able to move from one to the other, and you need some sort of compensation for same.

The first two are partially dealt with already. The way the game board is set up, there are six continents (well, China and southern asia are in the same group as Australia, and the Soviet Union counts as a continent unto itself), six continents numbered one through six. Each continent has six cities on it, also numbered one through six. The advantage here is that you can uniquely determine a location on the map just by rolling two dice; the red one is the continent and the yellow one is the city, or some such. (1,5) gets you New York, (5,2) gets you Odessa in Russia, and so forth.

So we have a method of randomly selecting destinations, now all we need is a reason to go to these destinations. In the game Rail Baron you just move from one city to the next; once you reach one destination that becomes your new starting point and you roll up another destination. It's a decent way to go about it, but it doesn't support the notion of carrying multiple loads. As was explained to me, one of the things you can do in the game is upgrade your ship to bigger ones that can carry more loads. So instead of just the one, you could carry several, going to different destinations. Also, we want players to be able to subcontract; that is, they can ask such and such to carry a load for them for a fee. There's no way that's viable if you're just moving from point to point like that, so we look onward.

As an aside, if we weren't looking for that deal aspect we might be able to hack it with just point to point movements like that. You can manage ship upgrading as carrying multiple of the same loads, for multiple of the payout. It would even make the game more interesting, when to upgrade your ship changes things from a simple race (can I hit my destinations more quickly than my opponents) into strategic competition, what with deciding when to upgrade your ship. But unless it's completely impossible we still want the subcontracting mechanic in there somehow, so let's leave this aside err... aside.

Back to the task at hand. We have ways of randomly determining cities. How do we determine what we're picking up and dropping off? Well, we could roll for both; say you just dropped of in Rio de Janerio and you need a new run. You roll for pickup (Vladivostok) and dropoff (Anchorage). A neat little run, if you weren't halfway accross the world to begin with. But maybe you can pay the guy who's docked in Shanghai to do it for you. And he'd want to upgrade his ship, because he's already got his load from Singapore that he's taking to Vancouver.

It's a very rosy picture, assuming it all works out that way. Maybe the guy in Shanghai is going the other way; in which case he says "deliver your own load" because it isn't worth his while to backtrack. Or maybe nobody's closer than India, in which case you might as well just do it on your own. Or maybe it isn't worth their while to upgrade, since it'll cost more than you're offering them and the chance to take a second load for profit comes only infrequently. Generally, it has to be convenient for your opposing player to take the offer, otherwise they'll just go about their business. Any one of those factors (not on their way, no room for the cargo, farther away from the run than you are) makes haggling fees not worth the effort, and the set of them might make it so the mechanic almost never comes up. Which would be a sad thing.

If we look at the pieces (metaphorically, I don't have them right in front of me and neither do you), the cargo comes in the colors of the various continents. That gives us some tools to work with. For example, if in the above scenario it was for a load of goods from ANY city in the Soviet union to Anchorage, then it's easier on our buddy in Shanghai. You could have rolled Archangel just as easy, and that's not on the way for anybody. Much easer to pick up from any city in Soviet Russia. (In Soviet Russia, city picks up you. How did Yakov Smirnov make any money again?)

Here's another question. What exactly are you doing while someone else does your run? If each person only gets one run, you might as well do it yourself because you've got nothing else to do but avoid the pirate. If we move it in the other direction, say you can roll infinite runs, then what stops you from rolling dozens and dozens of times until you get one you like? Subcontract out any that make sense, forget the rest. Now let's say you can get as many runs as you like, but you have to pay some fee to acquire new ones. Sure, you can get half a dozen, but increasing the options will cost you. There are pitfalls with this approach too, if you make it too cheap you run into the infinte runs problems. And you've still got the memory issues.

Let's say you've got three or four runs you can be going on, and each of your three or four opponents has their own three or four runs. How are you going to keep track of it? By memory? That's a recipe for disaster. Write it down? Writing things down takes time, time that you could be playing the game. It needlessly slows down the action, like when they saddle a perfectly good action movie with a superfluous romantic plot. Perhaps some sort of token to represent it? In Empire Builder they give you cards with potential runs on them, with the cargo, the destination and the payout written down there. Let's try something simpler.

Let's say we provide the game with a deck of 36 cards, one with each city name on it. They start out in a general pool off to the side (like the properties in Monopoly). Then, when you roll up a new run you get a destination card. Put a load on the card. Then, when you pick up the load, you can move the token from the card to your ship to indicate you've picked it up. You still have the card to remind you where it's going. Hmm... maybe you want to leave a second load on the card to remind you what color goes where. But anyways, it gives you a visual tracking method to remind you what your options are, and it lets you look over at someone else's runs to tell what they're doing at a glance. It also provides a convenient way of subcontracting; rather you can sell the run to another player, and represent the deal by physically handing them the card. Neat.

Although that brings up another issue. It's one thing to allow players to wheel and deal. It's another thing to encourage it enough that they actually do it. Bargaining in games is all kinds of fun, and I think a lot more games should be built that way, but just suggesting the possibility isn't enough. I'd like to design some more mechanics on that, but the post is pretty long, I've got other things to do today. And, I mean, I haven't even touched on the pirate, or the rewards for runs, or the money system, or ending the game. That's a lot of stuff for another day.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Jack,

    Is there anyway I can contact you via email or im?