Thoughts on Desireable Strategies to Support in EMPIRE 1.2

Discussion in 'EMPIRE (by Crazy Monkey Studios)' started by Robert Seater, Dec 1, 2013.

  1. Robert Seater

    Robert Seater Member

    I played EMPIRE version 1.0 obsessively and version 1.1 a moderate amount. (I think I was the first person to break 1,000 on version 1, although I never did hit 2,000 like some did.) Version 1.1 fixed a number of loopholes and add more tough decisions, but I feel that it lost some of the charm and elegance of the original, especially in the ability to really build/personalize a focused strategy and execute it before the game ends. I love the game, but I think it is falling short of its (very high) potential.

    I. First, I catalog some high level goals I'd like to see accomplished in the next revision.
    II. Second, I give a taxonomy of strategies I would like to be viable approaches to winning the game.
    III. Third, I brainstorm a hodge-podge of crazy ideas for accomplishing I and II. These are rough ideas, but hopefully there are some gems there that will help Keith improve the game.
    IV. Fourth, I recommend revisions for the building bonuses, so that there are fewer false choices in the regard.

    Note: I created these comment before Keith's post on his thoughts for version 1.2, so they do not incorporate or react to anything he said there. I have not played the 1.2 beta.
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  2. Robert Seater

    Robert Seater Member

    I. Goals
    (1) support hybrid armies – In version 1, you really had to pick one unit type and stick with it. In version 1.1 it’s better, but you still pretty much pick either warriors or cavalry and ignore the other. However, battles with all unit types in them can be very interesting. pure strategies are fine, but the mixed strategy should be viable and perhaps even encouraged. The easy strategy should probably be the interesting one, so that players are not tempted to do something tedious. Uniform armies should be harder to make work, rather than be easier to use. Diversifying costs more will help, as discussed below.

    (2) map-driven strategy and tactics – I never pay attention to the map when I’m making decisions, except for the busy work of placing a new city. Exploring is an afterthought and way to spend cash when you’re maxed out, and the terrain is so uniform that I can pretty much expect to find comparable city spots anywhere on the map. Crystal mines helped, but are not enough. Terrain obstacles, static defenses, wandering monsters, and objectives in the outer sea would all help (see below).

    (3) diversity strategies early – A good thing about version 1 was that by the end of a game, I had a very distinctive and focused deck. I had pursued a strategy and made it work. In version 1.1, the shorter games mean that I spend much of my time in the everyone-starts-the-same state where I have not made any real choices about how my deck will operate. I’d like to see strategies diverge very rapidly early in the game – and not just through pre-defined asymmetric character selection.

    (4) make strife/blight in deck less boring – Many people who love Dominion don’t like Witch because she makes the game boring. Curses are a perfectly balanced and strategically interesting part of dominion, but they make individual turns boring and frustrating. Drawing a hand of curses is the known risk of not playing defense cards, but it still produces a turn with no choices and no agency. I like that strife is a core mechanic of Empire and drives the inevitable downfall, but drawing a hand of strife needs to offer meaningful choices (even if it is still very bad). E.g. a bad hand of Bridge is still interesting to try and play well, even though you are down on your luck. A bad draw in Empire leaves you just watching the animations play out.

    (5) Mechanics mutually enforce / strategies blend and shift – Right now, I feel that once I pick a strategy, most of the choices (e.g. level 1 and 2 buildings to build and what units/cards to buy) become false choices. I’d like to see more cases where most options are tempting to most strategies, and a given option plays a different role in each strategy. For example, I like how the old Archers Halt had a role in an archer strategy (avoid brutal death) and a role in a warrior strategy (redraws). That made the card blend the two strategies and encourage hybrid approaches, rather than all-or-nothing specialization. The choices you make to support a strategy should sometimes tempt you into other strategies, thus giving you natural ‘exit strategies’ and transitions. The easiest way to achieve this is to have multiple bonuses on each building effect or multiple uses of many cards, so that they play different roles in different strategies and players have more than one reason to want those assets.

    (6) reduce early battle luck – the most frustrating and unsatisfying time in the game is when you draw a useless hand twice in a row, and engage the enemy without having made any choices (usually thus getting slaughtered). This is usual catastrophic and begins the decline of the empire. If this happens late in the game, it’s fine since the player had time to invest resources in avoiding it. When it happens early, or when it happens to a good deck through bad luck, it makes me want to quit in disgust. Something as simple as starting all battles with a few redraws could do wonders.

    (7) shorter play time – version 1 was good, but took too long for what it was, and the dynamics of the game shifted too slowly. Version 2 plays in about the right total length, but the pace of change is still too slow (e.g. the game 5 minutes in and 20 minutes in are almost the game). This is really just another call for earlier diversification, and hybrid strategies (so that I get to the interesting stuff faster, and have an option to shift mid-way to react to challenger encountered)
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  3. Robert Seater

    Robert Seater Member

    II. Strategic Variations
    My biggest disappointment with Empire is that its mechanics support many diverse long-term strategies, but after a few plays it becomes clear that only 1-3 are actually viable. This is a shame, since the potential is huge, and most of the structure is there. Here is my attempt to catalogue long-term strategic alternatives that would be interesting to pursue and thus should be supported. Some of these things that should be viable strategies for winning, and some are just back-up strategies to switch to in certain situations (e.g. as you are in decline and fighting to hang on).

    - Dominate. dominate the board and attack any enemy city every enemy fortress as it appears. You never get mobbed, but you can’t ever let up the pressure and lick your wounds. This is mostly what I do now.
    - Counter. receive attacks from each new enemy city, gaining defensive advantages, then immediately counter-attack the weakened force. You have to fight more battles, and the consequences of a lost battle are higher, but the defensive bonuses mean that you will suffer fewer losses. This is viable now, but since Guard Tower is bad in version 1.1, it’s a bit weak.
    - Flee. Abandon cities as they come under attack, and shift to parts of the map that are still mostly enemy-free. Avoid dense zones of baddies entirely, and wall them off (e.g. hide behind rivers and fortify the bridges, if such things existed and monsters moved accordingly). Currently just something you do at the end of the game when you’re in decline, but perhaps it could be a strategy unto itself if terrain obstacles were meaningful.

    - Small. Keep your empire down to 1 city, to reduce the rate of blight creation. Don’t resources time exploring or building extra cities.
    - Sparse. Spread your empire out to capture the best locations available. Explore a lot to find the best places.
    - Pulsate. Keep a large empire, but only vigorously protect the core city. Let the others fall or takes risks, and only plan on keeping them for short periods, while you focus on your heartland.

    - Uniform. build a uniform army of all 1 type of unit. Your cards will always match, but you won’t be flexible enough to deal with certain threats well.
    - Hybrid. Build a hybrid army of 2 or 3 types. You are flexible but less effective on any given turn.
    - Ratio. Run mostly a uniform army with 1 or 2 support units. E.g. 4-5 warriors with 1-2 archers, with a deck focused on the warriors. Your cards always work, and you have some flexibility. Your support units will die a lot, but your core army will be more effective for it.

    - Churn. Build cities next to prime locations, such as crystal mines, then tear them down and move on. You never have to deal with inefficient terrain, but you never reach the top level buildings.
    - Build Up. Build up giant cities that last as long as possible. They will slow down and become inefficient, but you get top level buildings and great feasts.
    - Mid/mix. Go halfway in between. Let cities get up a few levels, but then move on without worrying about feasts or even top level buildings. Or keep some cities large as points engines, while the rest churn to provide raw materials.

    - Lean. Rigorously keep strife out of your deck, so that every card you draw is useful. Sacrifice points and good cards at the cost of avoiding dead weight.
    - Turnover. Accept a certain amount of strife in your deck, but plan on using redraws or tough units to get past it, and capitalize on the good hands when they do come out.
    - Ignore. Blow off the deck entirely, and let it become wasteland. Your units will die more, but who care. You no don’t need to bother with crystals, and just focus on building replacement units.

    - Bottleneck. Meet the enemy at certain advantageous locations – e.g. bridges where you have static defenses (if such things existed). You will have to abandon some terrain, but you will win more battles.
    - Battle Line. Meet the enemy in the field wherever you find them. You can build cities anywhere, but can’t pick your battle locations.
    - Pierce. Hold back, then punch through the enemy to hit specific targets (e.g. end run an attacking city or reach a map objective location, if such things existed).

    - Surge. Get lots of VP early, and don’t plan on your empire being around long. Take VP at every opportunity at any cost.
    - Endure. Plan to last a long time and get VP slowly over time. Focus on sustainability and efficiency at the cost of income and effectiveness.

    - Stand Off. Hold back and hit the enemy with spells and arrows. Only engage the stragglers when they are isolated and wounded. This is how I broke 1K in version 1 – fireballs plus all-halt plus swift action did wonders. It doesn’t work nearly as well in v1.1, but it is still possible with the new 2-damage zap.
    - First strike. Maneuver so that you close the gap on your turn and strike first. Eliminate the enemies before they hit you, or at least before they hit you twice. Cavalry should be good at this, buy they die too easily. Warriors are better, since they can take one round of retaliation. Archers are too unreliable, but are great when they work. To make this viable, you’d need healthier units, cheap maneuver cards, and a way to make sure you get the right tactic cards (just viewing +1 more per Shaman Hut isn’t enough).
    - Dodge Past. Avoid combat and take out the enemy base quickly. I wish there were a little more control over initial setup of armies, so that I could arrange to have my troops bunched together vs. spread out thin. Sometimes I want one style of layout vs. the other, and getting the wrong one is just bad luck.
    - Mutual Annihilation. Use cheap units with high damage output, and plan on a lot of them dying. You’ll get strife, but save on cash. To make this work, you’d need to have a way to cheapen cavalry and a way to make it not so bad that you’re getting a lot of strife.
    - Hit and Run. Do some damage to the enemies, then end the battle in a draw before you take losses. The game doesn’t support this right now, but it could be an interesting way of dealing with huge hordes. You’d have to add a notion of retreat, which might not be worth the complexity.
    - Scatter and Pinch. Break up the enemy formation and hold your own. Lure them out one by one and concentrate your forces. Rely on your tactic cards to give you the edge in individual skirmishes. Currently, you can’t pursue this strategy since there is no good way to disrupt the enemy formation (except by outright killing them, which is really a ’stand off’ strategy.). Making ‘charge’ cheaper would help, but there might need to be another
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  4. Robert Seater

    Robert Seater Member

    III. Brainstorming
    Here are some crazy ideas that might help address the earlier mentioned issues and enable more diverse strategies. They are not fully baked by any stretch.

    Artifact Cache. Suppose there were islands in the outer ocean with heavily fortified defensive-only armies. If discovered and defeated, you would get to choose one of the bonuses, which would offer a permanent bonus to your empire. E.g. permanently increase your army size vs. get no strife from the first feast in each city vs. get +1 redraw each battle and +2 max redraws vs. whenever you build a settler heal the surrounding land a bit vs. reduce the strength of enemy bases. You can see what two bonuses it contains, and each bonus only appears once in the world, so you have a hard choice if you win. Aside from the bonuses directly reinforcing other strategies, such caches would enable an exploration based strategy or a piercing rhythm, where you focus on liberating caches rather than dominating enemy cities. Maybe there is a VP reward on top of whatever bonus you pick, to really encourage players to try for it. Furthermore, suppose ach cache had a known army with a weird composition. E.g. 4 mega-warriors vs. 10 archers vs. 20 warriors with only 1 health left. Then mounting an attack on a cache would be call for novel problem solving, not just more of the same.

    No Cost Reduction Buildings. They are not good for the game. You have to buy all 3 for them to be worth it, and then you have just taken away choices from the player. Rather, focus on cost diversification. E.g. I really like how archers cost crystals but very few minerals. This makes it an interesting choice which to buy. However, I do think there is a place for cost reduction, but not in a building. Instead, each square of water in a city zone reduces the cost of cavalry but a little bit. You still have free reign to choose what building improvements you want, but now city placement becomes more strategic. The three units would thus be differentiated in cost as follows
    - warriors costs a lot of minerals
    - archer costs mostly just a crystal
    - cavalry are all minerals but are cheaper if you have inefficient coastal cities
    Now what units I buy is not just a function of my strategy, but also of my short term tactical position.

    Static Defenses. If you could build static defense on the map, other that cities, then you would open up a realm of map-based strategies. For example, if I build cannons next to a bridge, then enemies getting funneled across the bridge are softened up and can be attacked in the choke point. Maybe the static defenses only trigger if you engage the enemy on/near them. So I have to actually fight the enemy near the cannons for them to soften them up for me. That way, I still fundamentally rely on the ground troops, but I have some tactical choices about where to engage the enemy. This might be a rule that doesn’t add enough depth for its complexity, but it has some potential to make the map really affect strategy. If I see a map with good choke points, I want to focus on a first-strike force plus cannons (expensive, damage enemy units before combat begins). If I see swamps, I shift to a stand-off strategy plus building earthworks (cheap, increase starting distance between armies).

    High variance terrain distribution. In any case, the terrain should be much more diverse. There should be clumps of crystal mines worth fighting for, and zones that are mostly mountains or mostly forest. You might with a new terrain that provides high income but turns to blight quickly, thus supporting a churn strategy and making me think about where I’m putting my cities and what I plan to do 10 turns from now.

    Initial Deck and Diversification. Start each deck with several copies of the ‘copy card’ to allow rapid specialization. Start players with 1-3 crystals, so that they can actually pick spells early in the game, and start to diversify. Don’t make me wait 10-20 turns before I get a spell, only to find that my deck is basically the same as it was before. Also, start each deck with 2 copies of the selected unique card, to reduce randomness of the draw in the early game. The unique cards are cool and exciting and change what strategies I pursue, so make them matter. A single fireball is not nearly as interesting as a pair of fireballs. Routinely doubling attacks values is not nearly as interesting as occasionally getting lucky. Don’t bother with any other asymmetric stare condition, other than the unique cards. That is your only start-of-game choice, and all the options support a range of strategies.

    Healthy Friendlies. All units have 1 HP more than the equivalent bad guy. I like how you did it for archers on v1.1. I like the character in 1.1 that gives warriors 1 extra HP, since it drives interesting tactical battles. In order for battles to be interesting, it has to be viable for me to take some hits. Otherwise, the only strategy is to stand off of strike first, not to engage and out-maneuver. Losing units is really painful, so a little extra toughness makes it viable to get in close and still be pursuing a good strategy. Close dense battles are much more interesting, so don’t encourage players to avoid that interesting situation!

    Free maneuvering tactic. Warrior retreat is a great card for the game, even though it is not super strong. It reinforced how warriors are tough and enduring, by letting them hit and run to survive. Charge promises to have a similar effect on cavalry, but its cost limits its value. I want to play more of them, but I find that I do better if I don’t take them. I suggest that each unit type have a free tactic associated with it. All of them should involve pushing other units, since that is a neat and unique tactical part of the game.
    - Warrior – retreat to back line
    - Cavalry – charge 2 spaces
    - Shift – shift one archer up/down by 1 or 2 spaces
    Making them free makes them define how the units operate (with some uncertainty), and meaning that some players use cavalry differently than others, depending on how much they rely on the matching tactic card. But that requires that they be always playable, and not seen as an alternative to a ‘good’ spell.
    Alternatively, consider combining the three effects into a single card (costing 1 CMD) that does something different depending on the type of unit it is used on. That way, it’s never a dead card, but has different implications to different players/strategies.

    Big City Strategy. Suppose you got 3 settlers instead of 1 when you chose that city upgrade option. However, your Nth city costs you N settlers. Then you could remove the cap on having 3 cities, since successive cities cost more and more settlers. Actually, that’s might be a really terrible idea. But the issue I’m trying to fix is that generating settlers is bad and thus not an interesting choice. You pretty much always go to 3 cities quickly, and then only get new settlers by abandoning dead cities. If you’re losing cities in combat, you’re doing something wrong anyway. But if there were the potential for a costly 4th city, then there is a real choice there.

    Make strife non-vanilla. I have seen two approaches that might translate to Empire.
    One is what Dominion did in the Dark Ages expansion with Ruins. Ruins are very bad action cards that opponents can put into your deck via attacks, just like curses. However, they still do something small, so using them well requires some skill and thought, even though they are distinctly a drawback. However, this adds a lot of complexity and can get fiddly quickly.

    The other option is to have every strife come with one (of a small handful of possible) means of self-purging by imposing a penalty on yourself. So, strife is useless, but you have to make a choice about whether or not take the hit to get rid of it. For example
    - Purge this card. Deal 1 damage to each of your units. Your units don’t fight this turn.
    - Purge this card. Lose all your minerals and crystals after the combat.
    - Purge this card. You lose 1 VP and do not earn VP for this battle.
    - Purge this card. Kill one of your units at random. It cannot be resurrected.
    - Purge this card. Opponent gains 3 mega warriors placed in the middle of the battlefield.
    - Purge this card. To play this card, you must pay 6 command and 6 redraws.
    - Purge this card. To play this card, you must also purge a spell and a tactic in your hand.
    - Purge this card. For the rest of the battle, your units will attack each other if given the opportunity.
    - Purge this card. Discard your hand. Do not draw any new cards this battle.
  5. Robert Seater

    Robert Seater Member

    IV. Building Upgrades
    Here are upgrade options that I think would enable a lot of different strategies while remaining touch choices regardless of your strategy.

    Level 1, Option A
    When you win a battle, view 2 extra spell cards.
    You build mines faster.

    Level 1, Option B
    When you win a battle, view 2 extra tactic cards.
    Your armies move faster.

    Level 2, Option A
    Add 4 squares to your harvest range. (farms)
    You gain a small amount of income from water spaces.

    Level 2, Option B
    When defending this city, you get +1 CMD, +2 Redraws, and +8 City Health.

    Level 3, Option A
    Gain 8 VP. Pay some resources (like it is now).
    If this city is destroyed, also destroy the attacking army.

    Level 2, Option B
    Purge 2 strife now. Pay some resources (like it is now).
    If this city is destroyed, get a settler.

    Each option has a role in any strategy, although some are better than others. Also, none are self-reinforcing. So, unlike cost reduction, choosing one does not force you to choose the same way again for your other cities. None dictate a strategy. Also, having 2 effects per building encourages strategy shifting. Once I’ve got extended farms, I might be tempted to shift to a cavalry strategy since I’ve get a consolation prize for being close to water (to get the cavalry-cheapening effect of water) – so strategies blend together better, rather than being so clear cut.

    Also, splitting tactic/spell bonus draws, I actually have to think strategically about what cards I want, not just tactically reacting to what I draw.
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  6. keithburgun

    keithburgun Administrator, Lead Designer Staff Member

    Rob sent me these notes earlier via email and I asked him to post them here. I'm still going through them - it's a lot to process, especially since I have my own huge pile of notes that I already was planning. But it's all good stuff and hopefully I can give my responses sooner than later.
  7. Silvercloak

    Silvercloak New Member

    Some fantastic ideas here. Thanks.
  8. Aranthys

    Aranthys New Member

    Very interesting read. Thanks !

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