Nathan Hansen Games

My absolute favorite board game is easily twilight imperium. But, it's so hard to get to the table. Primarily, I think, do to the length and perceived complexity of the game. I'm also quite fond of Eclipse, particularly its economic system, which is quite a bit faster in terms of gameplay. So you would think that at some point I would have tried my hand at the genre. I have not because I've never felt I had something to add and make a better game.

Enter Stellaris

As you may or may not be aware, Stellaris is a 4x space computer game being released by Paradox tomorrow (as of the time of this writing). And it looks amazing. Of the many, many things it does that I haven't really seen elsewhere, one, in particular, caught my attention. In Stellaris, there are 3 types of faster than light travel; Warpdrive, Hyper Lanes, and Wormhole Generators. Each individually aren't that amazing; Warpdrive means you can travel to any star in range, Hyper Lanes are preexisting paths that need to be followed between stars, and Wormhole Generators basically means you can teleport but to do so you need to build large platforms to make the wormholes and all jumps must be to or from one of these platforms. Obviously, each of these has been done before in some variety. But what is interesting to me is that all three exist in the same game. And that each race/faction works with only one of these methods. This provides some really nice asymmetry. In the context of Stellaris, it appears to be a balance of speed vs versatility.

So, as a board game guy, I started thinking about how I could add this kind of asymmetric travel to a game like Twilight Imperium. I originally thought I'd come up with a couple race mods for a game I love, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized I was going to need to make a whole new game in order to do this right. So, yesterday I started really working through the ideas with the context of this is a new game. I will be borrowing quite a bit from other games because certain aspects already work so well, why change?

Three Types of Movement?

How to make three types of movement work? My solution is fairly simple. I'm still using hex tiles similar to Twilight Imperium or Eclipse, but instead of each tile being a system they also include "half hexes" in each of the six directions and a few Hyper Lanes that lead from the actual center system through these partial hexes. So, if you use Warpdrive you travel by Hex, but if you use Hyper Lanes, you travel by tile but can only travel along paths. In this way, Warpdrive is slower but more versatile than Hyper Lanes. So, that solves those two methods, what about Wormhole Generators? Each player who uses Wormhole Generators can build them in a space they send a Construction Ship. Each Wormhole Generator allows movement to and from systems up to 2 tiles away from it. So, they are even faster than Hyper Lanes but you need to build something (which can then be attacked) in order to take advantage of that speed.

4X games are complex

I don't necessarily want a game that feels as complex as Twilight Imperium. My solution is to make a more "Euro" game. Which I should probably define what that means to me in this context. Euro games very rarely have zero-sum mechanisms, have a focus on building an engine, and rarely if ever allow for player elimination.


What do I mean by zero-sum mechanisms? Continuing to use Twilight Imperium as an example, in that game, two races fleets can not occupy the same system. If they do they must fight and one will leave. That is a zero-sum mechanism because, in order for one player to have a fleet there, the other player must be removed. I have, or you have it. We can't both have it. Zero-sum is about total control. I should probably note that Twilight Imperium is not a zero-sum game, it just has a zero-sum mechanism regarding individual systems.

My solution here is simple. Allow fleets and worlds to be occupied by multiple factions. And instead of combat being automatic, make it have a cost to initiate.

Building an engine

An engine is just a way of generating resources to be used elsewhere and bring you closer to winning the game. In a 4x game, resources generally come from the worlds you conquer. In this case, it will be from the world you occupy/colonize. Each world will have a number of spaces available. And any player can place a marker on that space which will represent their presence and influence. Of course, they can't just place anywhere in the universe, they need to get a colony ship there in the first place, or have the colony "grow." But each marker placed will mean greater resources for the player. I'm seeing this as working in a manner very similar to Eclypse, with the cubes on a player mat covering up various numbers which are revealed as more "buildings" are placed on worlds.

Player Elimination

The easiest way to remove player elimination is to remove combat and conflict. But, I still want some space combat, and I certainly want conflict. I might even want combat to be integral to one of the paths to victory, but I don't want it to be the default focus of the game necessarily. I'd like economic or science victories to be just as viable, and just as prone to conflict, even if not in the form of combat.

I don't really have a good solution for this yet. My best so far is just to have player elimination trigger the end of the game. So, if you manage to wipe a player out, you win a conquest victory. Hopefully, that would cause all the players to gang up on a player who started beating up on another player, but it could also lead to a race to be the one to land the killing blow.

Building New Stuff

So one of the things that you always do in 4x games is building new things. In Twilight Imperium, you need to have all the resources at one time to build whatever you build. I'd like to make it so you can build over time. If you can't afford a War Sun but have the tech, why not build it over time?

The way I see this working is like this. Each round players determine how many resources they have to work with based on how many places they've settled. They gather the appropriate resources and set them aside. Then as they take actions, some of those actions will require spending resources in some way.

So for example, let's say you have 5 Building Materials this round, and a construction ship that is in the same space as a Warp Generator under construction. As an action, you could place Building Materials onto the Warp Generator. The number you can place would be limited by current technology. If you place the last required resource, the Warp Generator token would flip from its building side to its working side. This same basic system would be used for all production and science research. It could also be used for more organic population expansion.

Actions and Leaders

Actions are a fairly simple concept of course but that doesn't mean we can't play with the concept a bit. Obviously, if you want to do something you spend an action, but we can also play with the cost of various actions. And there are a few ways we can do that. The obvious is of course that some actions cost more than other actions. Another way though is to play with distance from leaders. 

So what are leaders? Leaders are people in your empire who give you cool abilities. They can be kept on worlds or move with fleets. And you gain them by having the majority control of (some?) worlds. And they would probably have an ability that is based on being on a world, an ability based on being with a fleet, and an ability that is global to the whole faction.

So, back to how do they affect actions. Basically, the cost of an action increases by 1 for each space(or tile?) they are away from the closest leader. The idea is to simulate communications delays and encourage the risky behavior of sending leaders out with the fleets.

Next Steps

As of right now, this is all purely conceptual. So, my next step is to build a playable prototype that I can get on the table as fast as possible.

Written by Nathan Hansen — May 09, 2016

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