Friday, July 11, 2014

Civ V: Balancing Asynch Games?

We've mostly entered the modern era in our first asynch Civ V game and a few issues have arisen in this game and in conversations with Robb that may need solutions outside the game itself. There seem to be certain things that work in a particular way that probably only crop up in an asynch game so they weren't considered or were deliberately ignored by the game designers. Ideally there'd be a solution in game but that's not going to happen...

The main problem is the way turns are treated in the game. Each person, starting with the game host, takes a turn. Then the game does a cleanup step at the end of the cycle and the game host goes again. People used to playing a single player game will understand this concept for sure. Barbarians and city states take moves after all of the AI civs take moves, and that happens after the player takes a turn. Some of the stuff that happens during this cleanup step are crucially important and the game host always gets to act first after they happen which really isn't fair.

There are some minor advantages with going first. For example, the game host will always win a tie for a wonder if two people would build it on the same turn. Matt complained several times in the comment thread for our most progressed game that he'd missed out on wonders by one turn over and over. Rough, but at least he was legitimately a turn behind. He finished Parthenon on the exact same turn I did, but he got to have it and I didn't because he was first in turn order. Ideally the game would look ahead to see if a wonder was going to be tied for and would give it out randomly. Or maybe if a wonder was legitimately completed on the same game turn by multiple civs then they both get to have it. The game host will always be a turn ahead on troop movements, too. So they have a minor edge in both attacking and defending

The cleanup phase is when spies assigned to city states get to rig elections. This happens on a schedule and the starting player always gets to go first. Now, city state elections rarely matter. They can boost someone's influence and knock everyone else down. Where it does matter is when people are at war and an election makes it so one of the warring civs loses control of their ally. When this happens everyone is able to make peace with the city state and can spend money to become the ally. In an asynch game the game host gets first crack.

Now, I don't think this is actually something that should ever happen. Because elections are on a fixed schedule and you can look and see how much influence you have with a city state you can always pay money in advance to make sure you never lose control of the city state. Stealing a city state this way should only work against broke opponents, or negligent ones. But because you don't know where your opponent has parked their spies you don't know which allies you need to bump up and which you don't. Keeping a city state ally is so critically important that you should just pay up on all of them anyway. But the game host doesn't need to bother with this. They don't need to pay attention to city state election timing. They don't need to pay up in advance. They can just wait and see what's going on and pay up only when they lose control of a city state. Because they go first. On the other hand the person last in turn order needs to worry about all of their city states all of the time because every other player gets a crack at them if they ever lose control.

The council vote is another thing that gets generated between turns. The game looks to see who is host, and who otherwise has the most votes. And then the game prompts them on their next turns to make a proposal. If the game host is one of these two people this means they get first crack at making a proposal. Some of the proposals have options on them and the person who proposes them gets to pick the option. This means that the person last in turn order should never get to pick a world religion or a world ideology. (At least not until both options become available, anyway, and they get their second choice!)

It doesn't matter if someone has, say, 21 votes and the opponents have 14 between them. Normally I'd think that person could guarantee world ideology the first time that becomes an option, but not if they're late in turn order. This is happening in our current game, where Dave has a huge vote lead and should be able to force through freedom as world ideology. This should make Matt and I unhappy and give Dave extra happy faces. Instead Matt was able to propose autocracy as the world ideology. A vote sure to fail, but it it does pass then Dave and I will get a big chunk of unhappiness and Matt will get extra happy faces. Extra happy faces he probably shouldn't have. (Dave did get to make a different crippling proposal though so I don't feel too bad for him. I'm the one getting blown out here!)

There are a bunch of solutions to this problem from a game design standpoint. I'd make it so proposing 'world ideology' didn't have a selection at time of proposal. I'd make it so you voted like an election when it came down to it and if any ideology had more votes than the rest combined it would win and otherwise none would go in. Or you could let both proposals be for different world ideologies and let the one that passes by the most go through. But I don't get to make either of those things happen. Instead the game host gets to dominate things.

For some of these things there are outside solutions available. The council thing we could just mandate that the game pauses when proposals are made and we make them in an outside forum. Let the council host pick first. Or choose randomly each time. Or alternate. It would 'slow things down' a little, but it feels like it has to be more fair than running the game as it is. The city state thing you could pause the game and ask if the spy owner has the money to spend on their next turn to get the steal off. And if they do, you have to let them.

I don't know that there is a solution for wonders. You could always announce a couple turns in advance when you're going to complete a wonder, but with great engineers existing I think that would be problematic. I guess you could take the stance that you announce with 2 turns to go and that locks out people from using an engineer? And then if two people announce at the same time you roll randomly which one gets it and the other has to switch off on the last turn?

That feels like it would work, but is a real pain and doesn't feel fun. Maybe you just accept that turn order is an advantage for wonders? You could use it as a handicap system of sorts I guess, by putting the stronger players/civs late in turn order? I guess that could be true for everything. Just accept that people late in turn order don't get a good path to a diplomatic victory?

The other problem comes with the way the random number generator works, and the fact that you're playing a game you have to load up every single turn. Robb did some testing and you can change what is inside a hut by changing what turn you open it up. You can change what is inside a hut by taking a different action in the same turn! Attack a barbarian and you can get something different out of the hut! You can try out combats and reload if they don't work out the way you wanted. You can use significantly fewer units as scouts by moving them in one direction, restarting your turn, and then moving them in other directions.

My boats in our main game are faster than Dave's by 2 I think since I have great lighthouse and exploration opened and I don't think he does. This means I can legitimately control movement in the seas (or at least have guaranteed knowledge of the sea movement) by moving forward a bunch and then juking back so I end up moving forward a little bit. I have a couple boats that can move 6 that keep moving 3 forward and 3 back to keep an eye on a small area of the ocean. But if I was willing to keep reloading I could actually move 6 spaces in every direction every turn. With my extra vision range I could probably cover an entire ocean with 1 boat!

I'm torn on if either of these things are bad or if they're fair pool for an asynch game. I do things like write down the cards in hand in A Few Acres of Snow when I play that asynch on Yucata, and reloading to do extra scouting feels similar. Without doing it it's hard to know where units have moved when in a live game you'd be able to see which way they walked. Reloading to scum good huts would be impossible in a live game though... One thing I am sure of is I want to be on the same playing field as the other people. I've been keeping my huts with maps and haven't been scouting a circle of radius 10 every turn, but if other people are getting good huts all the time and doing big scouts then I should too.

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