Jul 17, 2013

Rerun: Gaming the Design: Sword Merchants

Today's post is a repost of an analysis I did on Battle Merchants, which is currently on Kickstarter. The designer has also posted a designer diary for the game on BGG. It was previously known as Sword Merchants.

Gil Hova's Sword Merchants is an economic game where players compete to make the most money by selling weapons of different types and levels to type-specific spaces on the board. Players must balance several different tracks of advancement without losing ground in the sales race, which creates a nice tension on each turn and leaves space for long-term strategy. More information about it can be found on the designer's blog under its former name, Pax Robotica. I have played this game a couple of times over the years and was asked to take a look at the latest incarnation.

The game allows players to create different levels of each weapon type by collecting technology cards for that weapon type. A new addition to the game was the introduction of tiles that a player obtains for having the most technology cards of a given weapon type above a certain amount, working much like the Longest Road and Largest Army from The Settlers of Catan. In addition to being worth points at the end of the game, these tiles also grant a special ability.

During a player's turn, he or she may perform of the following actions:

  • Take a weapon technology card
  • Take a special effect Kingdom card
  • Build up to three weapons
  • Sell one weapon
The weapon tiles' special abilities each allow you to take a single additional action for the cost of $2 if your first action was the one specific to the tile. For example, if you have acquired the sword tile, and your first action was to build weapons, you may pay $2 to take a second action. In fact, the sword tile itself was the first problem I spotted.

A key element of the game is that the spaces to which weapons are sold are type-specific. In addition, not all spaces are available at the start of the game. The game is divided into three battlefields, and each battlefield begins with only one pair of spaces available. Additional pairs of spaces only become available when that pair is filled. Because of this, not every weapon type will have a space available to which it can be sold.

Because of this scarcity of target spaces, it is important that you don't waste money building weapons that you cannot sell on your next turn. Money is very tight in this game, so having an unsellable weapon will likely lead to a wasted turn or turns. Fortunately, when building weapons, you can see what weapons other players have previously built and are ready to sell. You can use this information to ensure that the weapon you build will have a space available on your next turn.

The sword tile breaks this important tempo mechanism. With it, a player can build and sell a weapon in the same turn. This will allow the player to sell to spaces that an opponent was counting on having. The other tiles aren't nearly as valuable as the sword tile, as taking a second action after taking a tech or Kingdom card doesn't break the tempo of build-wait-sell. The tile that lets you take an action after selling also isn't as good because selling, then building still leaves a waiting period after building.

To prove that this was as imbalanced as I suspected, we switched the randomly-assigned starting techs so that I was the one who started with the lead in sword tech. We also set a goal of my needing to win by $20 to prove that it was broken.

Profits from sales of weapons have a base value of $2 or $3. Using the sword tile to take an extra action costs $2; it would seem that the cost would make it not worth doing, as you are cancelling out your own profit. However, another mechanic in the game is that you are selling to factions on each battlefield. Selling to a faction gives you a bonus chip for the opposing faction, but only if you were the first to ever sell in that specific space.

Bonus chips add $1 to the profit for each weapon sold to the indicated faction. This encourages two things: selling to the faction for which you have the most bonus chips and selling to newly-available spaces which still have a bonus chip.

The strategy, then, is to use the sword tile to sell almost exclusively to tiles with bonus chips that accept weapons your opponents have built. You give up the effect of concentrating sales to a single faction, but you will collect so many chips that you will sell as high to any faction as someone specializing in it.

Employing this strategy has two effects. First, you deprive opponents of the opportunity to collect chips and force them to sell to lesser spaces (if they can sell at all). Second, instead of breaking even after the cost of using the tile's ability, you will net $5+ on each sale.

During the game, I spotted a Kingdom card which had good synergy with my chosen strategy. It said that, for the rest of the game, anytime I built multiple weapons, if one of them was a level 1 (smallest), I could sell it immediately. This meant that on my turn I would build a level 1 and a level 5 weapon. The Kingdom card would let me sell the level 1 and I would pay $2 to the sword tile to sell the level 5. I was gobbling up two spaces per turn, usually with bonus chips. The two effects thus reinforced each other and gave me a margin of victory of $72, easily clearing the goal set.

My first suggestion to the designer was to increase the activation cost of the sword tile to $3. He also felt that the Kingdom card should be given an activation cost. Since then, I've crunched the numbers and doing both of these would have only cost me about $30 from my final score, still leaving a sizeable margin. I was wrong about these changes. They are not enough.

The real answer is that these effects cannot exist at all. They break a fundamental focal point of the game's strategy: ensuring that you can sell a weapon the turn after you build it. If your opponent has one or both of these cards, there is no way to play around it. From the moment your opponent takes one of these cards, the rest of your game will be treading water and waiting for him or her to just trigger the game end. Perhaps the Kingdom card could survive if it was a one-shot effect and didn't last the entire game, but then it would have little point and would not be taken often. My advice at this point is to just think of completely different effects to replace them.

There was another rule that I warned would be a problem but didn't have the opportunity to prove. Three times during the game battles occur and some spaces on the board will clear. It is in a player's interest to be the first to take a turn on the newly-open board because that will give you the most flexibility. Gil had a rule that the player who triggered the battles would be the last to go after the board had been cleared. This will disincentivize players from being the one to trigger. The game will last longer as each player waits for another to be the one. This is a mistake I have made in my own designs.

Unfortunately, my sword-tile/kingdom-card strategy overshadowed this effect. I gained so much by selling as quickly as I can that it was worth it to go last. In fact, since I could build and sell after an opponent built but before they could sell, it actually didn't matter to me if I was last to act post-battles.

I still believe that this rule will slow the game down by at least one round per phase of the game and increase total playing time by about 12 minutes. I will advise the designer to watch carefully for players intentionally avoiding being the one to trigger in future playtests.

Today's two key takeaways:

  • Don't allow players to circumvent your game's strategic focal point.
  • Don't incentivize players to delay the game.

Do you have any questions about this game? I haven't given a full overview of everything and concentrated on the elements related to the issues I was able to spot, so feel free to ask for more details if you wish in the comments section. If the designer wishes to comment, I will append it to the end of this article.

Would you like to have your game featured in a future Gaming the Design column? Let me know at gdw@gamedesignerwannabe.com

Response from the designer:

Thanks for the writeup. I had the same thought this morning about the forge/sell tempo: The Kingdom Card that allows you to sell a Level 1 weapon on the same round that you should forge it should go. I'm probably going to replace it with a Kingdom Card that gives you a discount for forging Level 1 weapons (assuming it's not too powerful early in the game).

I'm going to keep an eye on the Longsword power at $3. It still might be too powerful at that cost, and at $4, it might become too weak.

I still disagree with you about the turn sequence, though. I haven't seen turtling become a significant enough problem with the game for the extra-turn rule to prove its worth. Players have so little direct control over that, I don't think it's worth keeping. I know it's powerful to be the first to start a round, but I'm not convinced that it significantly delays the game.

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