A Balancing Act

“Sabotage!”, the representative to the Solar Council of Mercury approached his colleague, who was fulminating from behind his screen. “Sabotage, I tell you! We’ve lost all of our credits and Antihydrogen, sir!” 

“What!? How? More importantly, who?” The representative asked. His colleague shook his head and turned to the screen. He pointed at a log entry showing a transaction to an address. The address was all too familiar to the Mercurian representative. “Mars.” He said, turned around and headed back to the Solar Council room, where next session of debate was about to commence. 

It’s been a while. Apologies for the long absence of updates, the last few months have seen disappointingly little Governor action.  Last Saturday, the 27th of October 2018, however, we organized the latest Governor play test.

Before I get into a report of that session, I would like to dedicate a few words to my efforts in balancing the game.

27-10 Preparation
Lobbyists and representatives to the Solar Council preparing for the afternoon’s session.

Bring in the robots!

Governor is a game played with 18 to 27 players. Even in games where we didn’t meet the minimum required number of players, setting up the game and getting the players together can be quite a challenge. After each play test I receive valuable feedback from players. Unfortunately, much of that feedback was to do with balancing the game. Some players would always feel that their starting position gave them such a large disadvantage that they had no chance of winning.

Now, after each session I am able to incrementally add more balance to the game.  The pace of this was much too slow, however. Time for some automation!

My first attempt at creating an Artificial Intelligence (or AI, if you’ve been living under a rock for the last year) involved creating a Python script that sent HTTP calls to the Governor back-end. This, unfortunately, ended in tears as I had no control over the timing of the calls. Okay, maybe I could have gotten some control over this, but it was getting frustrating. So, I decided to incorporate the AI into the game itself.

Added bonus of this is that I can now potentially let human players play the game against the AI. And once and for all answering the question: Who is more capable of conquering the Solar System, humans or robots?

Each player (or nation, in game terms) has control over one fleet. This fleet is used to gather resources and wage war with other players by attacking regions and other fleets. Each nation also has a number of regions that gain them income (credits) each turn. This represents the gathering of taxes from the inhabitants of those regions. Some regions are owned by players at the beginning of the game, but most regions are unoccupied. Resources appear on random regions each turn and can be gathered by players whose fleets have the ability to mine these resources.

I decided to build my AI player according to a few simple rules:

  • All fleets have the ability to mine resources;
  • Each round each player moves its fleet to the region that has the highest resource value;
  • If no such region can be moved to, they attempt to claim a random region;
  • Each round each player converts all resources and credits into Governor Points (victory points);
  • If any region is claimed by only one player, that player gains control of the region at the start of the next round;
  • Else, if more than one player claimed that region, it remains neutral.

In the video below, you can see my AI in action:

It took a few iterations, but eventually I managed to balance the nations in the game, while keeping their characteristic starting conditions. I.e. the inner planets started with more credits and income and the outer worlds were richer in resources. Out of the twenty or so games I simulated, there were only a few nations that one more than once (there’s still a disproportionate chance of winning when playing the United Nations of Earth, but that just adds to the world building, in my opinion). Time to put my newly balanced game to the test in a live session!

Keep your friends close

Back to last Saturday. I invited some friends, colleagues, friends of colleagues and colleagues of friends to our home in the Hague to play the latest version of Governor. This time I had the pleasure of having a guest Chairman (thanks Nick!) to oversee the debate in the Solar Council. This left me free to roam around to answer questions and make small adjustments to the game where needed.

27-10 Solar Council
The Solar Council being updated on the latest round’s claims, fleet movement and battles.

To summarize the session: Mars tried to steal all of Mercury’s resources. Mercury retaliated by moving the Solar Council to divide all of Mars’ resources evenly over the Solar System’s nations. Triton made friends of enemies and enemies of friends, every time gaining the most out of every deal. Titan waged war on every fleet that was in its range. And the representative of Miranda set up the legal scaffolding that would shape the democratic backbone of the Solar Council while his partner tried to steal as much territory from other nations as possible.

All in all, no one felt they were at a disadvantage because of their starting position. Balancing the game using AI has been a success. In the last few games the inner planets (Earth, Mars and Mercury) always had a distinct advantage. However, in this game, despite Mars’ efforts to steal all of Mercury’s resources, the winner was the small mining colony on asteroid of Beatrix-311.

Now, with the game more or less in balance, it’s time to look towards the next improvements. Going by last session’s feedback, this means more ways to wage war, more ways to conquer regions and more ways to conduct subterfuge and espionage. In other words: More ways to have a fun afternoon with friends!

If you have any questions or remarks or just want to stay informed about developments and future sessions, keep checking this site or e-mail me at gijsvmalsen@gmail.com

Let’s do it Live!

“Step into my office”, the lobbyist for the Duchy of Europa said, holding open the door to the narrow hallway leading to the restrooms. Two nervous representatives from the Titan States entered and the door was shut. The remaining lobbyists and Solar Council representatives in the room could only guess what schemes and machinations were being discussed inside. Not that they noticed, because there was more to worry about. Illegitimate claims of Jupiter, the ongoing humanitarian crises on Mars and Uranus’ moon Miranda and the access to technology to mine the Solar System’s celestial bodies of valuable resources were just a few of the other items on the agenda of the Solar Council.

Welcome to my blog! I will use this website and blog to occasionally post updates about development and upcoming events. Some posts may deal with the more technical aspects of the game and some posts may deal with the game theory. Also, I will use this space to post updates about past sessions.

Recently, I had the privilege to organize another playtest for Governor, a hybrid game about interplanetary diplomacy, negotiation and warfare. The session was held on the 24th of February 2018 and took place in Muntmeesters in Utrecht. Divided over two rooms, seven teams of two to three players each were given the responsibility to represent their world in the Solar Council.

Muntmeesters Governor Session 24-02-2018
Debriefing the Muntmeesters playtest on 24-02-2018. The members of the Solar Council are sitting at the table and the lobbyists are standing. The projection on the right shows geopolitical state of the Solar System at the end of the game.

A little background

I have been developing Governor for a little under two years now. It started as a custom-made team building activity for a few colleagues and has been growing ever since, being played by players of various backgrounds: from civil servants and students of international diplomacy to board game enthusiasts and video gamers. Governor is ideally played by 18-27 players, divided in teams of 2-3. Each of these teams represent a nation in the future Solar System. For example, one team may be the United Nations of Earth while another team is the Socialist Republic of Triton. Over the course of a few hours the players negotiate, trade, debate and perhaps even wage war with each other. Successfully completing its goals earns a team victory points. The nation (or nations) with the most victory points at the end of the game wins. The game generally takes place in two physical rooms at once: The Solar Council Room and Outside.

Governing the Solar System

Within the Solar Council Room an elected member of each team sits. These players together form the Solar Council. This council is tasked with the responsibility to draft and approve laws that amend the existing rules of the game. Laws can pertain to specific rules in the game (e.g. “No nation may trade weapons”), specific nations (e.g. “Mercury shall not lay claim to the space surrounding Venus”) or even the way in which the game is played (e.g. “Every second round the Representatives of the Solar Council may leave the Council Room for a bathroom break”). To pass a law a vote is needed. This generally means that a majority of the players have to be in favor of the rule change for it to pass. The Council is presided over by a Chairperson. So far this person has only been myself, but one of the action points for next sessions is to appoint someone else for this, as it has proven to be difficult to manage both the players inside and outside the Solar Council.

example law
Example of a law dictating how the Representatives of the Solar Council are to communicate between themselves and with their lobbyists.

Outside of the Solar Council Room all other players are gathered. They play the role of lobbyists for their nation. They are responsible for moving fleets, conducting trade, gathering resources and keeping their Representative informed. Also, they have the opportunity to make deals and forge alliances with other nations, as they can speak and move freely. Their starting point is the Integrated Command Interface (ICI), which is an online tool that presents them with tactical information on the current state of affairs in the Solar System. It has a map of the System, lists the current laws in place and relevant objectives and events, and facilitates trade, combat, fleet movement etc. Most of the work developing Governor so far has gone into creating and maturing the ICI. After the last playtest I still have some bugs to work out, but hopefully I am hopeful that I can present a fully-functioning ICI next session. This also means that I can focus more on developing and balancing the rules of the game instead of just the underlying tech.

ici governor unl
Two lobbyists pouring over the ICI during a session with the delegation of United Netherlands. Photo courtesy of Daan Roos

Don’t hate the player…

The difference between Governor and many other (board) games is that players are able to influence the rules of the game itself. Through drafting and approving laws that change or amend the existing rules of the game, players are in control of how the game is played. This leads to interesting situations. For example, a situation occurred during one of the first games we organized where Pluto and Triton wanted to merge to become a single nation. This proposal predictably met with resistance from the rest of the Solar Council. Very forthcoming, the two merging nations agreed to help draft a law that would regulate mergers of nations. This included provisions such as that they would only have one vote and they should pay a fraction of their collective resources to the Solar Council out of goodwill. However, when the draft law came to a vote, it failed to pass, even though the merging nations had voted in favor. This was the result of the fact that Earth had been acting somewhat dishonestly towards some of the other nations and when these saw that the representative of the former nation helped draft the law and voted in favor, they voted against. Suffice to say, this put the newly formed nation of Pluto-Triton in a very advantageous position, since they now had two of everything, including votes and victory points.

This is one of many examples of the situations that occur during a game of Governor. In future posts and playtest reports I hope to highlight and analyze more of these situations and explore the many fun and unpredictable directions a game of Governor can take.

The Chairperson opened debate. The Representative of the Socialist Republic of Pluto and Charon took the floor: “Dear Mr. Chairperson, The Politburo of the Glorious People’s Republic of the Pluto and Charon is of the opinion that this law is a discriminatory remnant of a by-gone era. It stands in the way of free trade between the Union of the Fringe, Titan and Europa. Hence, we would like to see it abolished.” The Representative sat down and straightened the rim of his hat.  “Dear Mr. Chairperson,” It was now the Representative of the United Nations of Earth’s turn to speak. “we would like to stress again that the payments made to the core planets by the worlds that have now banded together in this so-called ‘Union of the Fringe’ are naught but fair recompense for the opportunities we have given them. Opportunities without which their precious homeworld would now be nothing more than cold rocks floating eternally at the edge of the Solar System.” 

“Is that a threat?”, The Representative of Pluto and Charon replied.

“Do you want it to be?”, The Terran Representative responded.

The Chairperson called the two Representatives to order: “Please, gentlemen, let me remind you of the rules of conduct in this committee. Please adhere to them or I will be forced to suspend your voting rights.” The Representatives were quiet and the Chairperson called for a vote on Pluto’s proposal. It passed with a six-to-one vote in favor. The shackles binding the proletariat just became a bit looser.

If you have any questions or remarks or just want to stay informed about developments and future sessions, keep checking this site or e-mail me at gijsvmalsen@gmail.com