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Hey everyone! My name is Matt Brand. I work at GameTheory in Burlington, VT, and I am the primary developer on the digital version of Dominant Species by GMT Games. I am finishing up the Artificial Intelligence (AI) portion of the game right now, and wanted to give a little window into the creation of the AI. I’m going to give a little summary of the complex nature of the AI for this game, and then some of the strategies that Kai Jensen (Developer of the Dominant Species boardgame ) and I came up with in order to facilitate an interesting and fun play experience.
Dominant Species (DS) is a game with a lot of complex decision points. It may not seem that way when playing the game as a human, but the ways in which some decisions are made as a player involve a lot of underlying logic and assumptions that need to be taken into account when making an AI come to similar conclusions. Even some seemingly simple moves take layers of analysis in order for the AI to arrive at a similar decision that a human player will make.
The main reason for the deep complexity in DS is the breadth of types of actions that the game involves. For example, choosing and placing an element in Abundance, which really comes down to what elements can support the player the best on the board, is relatively simple, while moving animals around during Migration in order to maximize different results gets way more complex. Both involve a basic goal of maximizing the amount of tiles on earth that the AI desires to dominate, but the ways that is accomplished in each of those 2 types of actions are very different. And those are only 2 actions out of the 12 types, not to mention the Dominance Cards, which involve another entire range of different types of behaviors and decisions.
Another reason for the complexity is the turn structure. DS is unlike most other games. Generally in a game each player takes one turn, does an action, and the game advances to the next player. There are the same number of turns per round per player, and the actions done in each turn are relatively similar. DS is very different because it has varying amounts of actions per player, which changes over the course of the game. It progresses in Initiative order in the Planning Phase, each player taking a turn to place an Action Pawn on the desired action. But then once it gets to the Execution Phase, the turns are made in the order the players have designated, so the same player could take 2, 3 or even more turns in a row. (This also presents a big challenge as we design the multi-player functionality we’re adding to the game later this summer, but that’s another article.)
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This update is to let you guys know that we are making good progress on both the digital and the physical rewards for our Twilight Struggle project! I know last month’s update might have been a bit of a downer, as you read about delays on both the digital and physical fronts. So I’m happy to report this month that we’re going full steam ahead again! Here are a few specifics, to give you a sense of what we’ve accomplished of late:
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No Retreat! The Italian Front will be released soon! I have been very busy with the details of the design work and haven’t been able to spend much time online telling you all about its peculiarities and qualities. So please, let me correct this lapse today.
Why This Game?
This is the fourth game in my “No Retreat!” series, which premiered with No Retreat: The Russian Front, my favorite WWII topic. This was followed by the North African Front (1940-43) game. The third was about the French Front (1940), published by Victory Point Games, and currently on GMT’s P500 list as No Retreat: The French and Polish Fronts, with the Polish campaign added in for this version. My initial goal was to make just the first NR! game, but things got out of hand and I was somehow goaded into adding more and more titles to the list. My goal right now is to make five games total, the final one covering the West Front (1943-45). This series is a tribute to the old Avalon Hill “Classics”: NR1 = Russian Campaign, NR2 = Afrika Korps, NR3 = France 40, NR4 = Anzio, NR5 = D-Day. We now are at number four: The Italian Campaign.
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As mentioned in previous articles (Design Diary #1 and Design Diary #2), I believe that one of the most distinctive aspects of any card-driven game (CDG) is the set of historical events that are featured on the operations cards used in the game. Not only should the events provide players with interesting alternatives to the standard operations points offered by the cards, but they should also evoke the correct historic setting for the game as a whole. These points equally hold true for deckbuilding games as well – the events on the cards players choose for their decks must be interesting in play and must also fit the game’s theme.
Designing the events for a card-driven game can be a very difficult balancing act. Of course it is important to make sure that no event has a disproportionate effect on the game, and it can take a great amount of playtesting effort to properly exercise candidate events. However, the events in a deckbuilding game can be an even greater playtesting challenge. While events in CDGs tend to be a) unique and b) drawn randomly, events in deckbuilding games are frequently purposely selected by players in multiple copies. This means that the relative effect of events in deckbuilding games can be greatly magnified, and any issues that may exist with combinations of certain events will most assuredly be found and exploited.
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Thunder Alley did exactly what Carla & I had hoped it would do. It brought the feel of a stock car race to our table. No runaway leaders, frequent yellow flags and when there were no yellows, there was tension around the event cards with half the table hoping for a yellow to catch up and the other half hoping for a green to hold the lead. If played in the right spirit it is a game that begs you to keep your car in good enough shape to the last half lap when you can try to sprint to the finish and take the checkered flag. I like the constant re-organizing of the pack that is an American stock car event. And if I like it, Carla loves it. No one is in complete control and no one is ever out until the cars start crossing the finish line.
However, that style is not for everybody. Most of the world does not see the weekly banging of metal and spinning tires that we see and have come to appreciate. When the rest of the world goes racing they witness a more strategic and consistent event. Cars get to the front and they stay there, daring those behind to find the right opportunity to challenge them. The back of the pack does not get bailed out by an accident and must claw their way out of the rear to get into the points. Carla & I took this as a challenge, to try and make a game that uses similar components, that can share tracks with its sister game Thunder Alley , and that feels more like a F1 road race than a NASCAR tri-oval. In the end the changes are significant but the game-play is easy to pick up if you have any experience with Thunder Alley .
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In my previous InsideGMT post, I compared the expansion Labyrinth II: The Awakening, 2010 – ? with Twilight Struggle, and gave some examples of play to shed light on the similarities between both games.
In this post, I will describe some of the challenges in designing a simulation on a very recent and still evolving topic, and give additional examples of play based on ongoing events.
I first discussed the idea of designing an Arab Spring simulation based on his Labyrinth game to Volko Ruhnke at the GMT Weekend at the Warehouse (Hanford CA), 16 – 19 October 2014. We agreed that it made sense to have the starting point (the first book end) of the Labyrinth II expansion commence with the beginning of the Arab Spring in late 2010, as this was also roughly the same point that the events in Labyrinth tailed off from the historical record. I actually do have a few pre-Arab Spring events in the expansion deck that cover the gap from where Labyrinth officially ends and Labyrinth II officially begins, most notably the Maersk Alabama affair, as shown so well in the Tom Hanks “Captain Phillips” movie, and the popular reaction to the Iranian Elections of 2009, which some actually consider as the popular movement that inspired the Arab Spring that followed in the other countries.
I have had a much more difficult time deciding where to end the game expansion. The Arab Spring officially began on December 17, 2010, when Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi committed an act of self-immolation to protest harsh treatment by local authorities. His sacrifice brought down the Tunisian government a month later and sparked a popular movement to be known as the Arab Spring (or Awakening) that spread across the Muslim world, toppling 6 governments and igniting 4 Civil Wars…and establishing a democratic government in Tunisia. The popular street protests of the Arab Spring had run their course by June 2012, or about 19 total months, and this would be a logical second book end for the expansion, except that the street protests in some cases evolved into more violent forms of political expression and seamlessly transitioned into Civil Wars in Libya, Syria and elsewhere. In this broader sense, the events that naturally flowed from the Arab Spring protests have not run their course and will likely not do so for several more years, perhaps decades.
A few early version Sample Playtest Cards for Labyrinth II. Development and editing continues.
Genesis Developer Update – April 2015
As we enter the month of April, the creation of the game’s components is in the final stretch. The map, counters, Event Cards, and Kingdom Display/Victory Point Cards are complete. The rules and the Player Aid cards have moved through the layout and internal edit process, are off to the game’s proofreader and group of the play testers for a final edit. The final component – the Playbook – is in the layout and internal edit process and will be sent to the proofreaders and play testers later this month for a final edit. The Playbook features an extensive Example of Play of a complete game turn of the three person version of one of the shorter scenarios, covering the middle part of the historical period represented in the game.
The game includes eight scenarios:
- one short solitaire learning scenario designed to introduce the player to the basic mechanics of movement and combat
- one full 10 turn Campaign Scenario design primarily for 3-5 players, which also has a two player variant where the players control two empires
- three 3-4 turn scenarios playable by 2-5 players covering portions of the period
- three 3 turn scenarios playable by 2 players or solitaire
Now for the eye candy:
The map shows Anatolia (modern Turkey), the Levant (Middle East/Egypt) and Mesopotamia as they possibly appeared in The Late Bronze Age, approximately 1700 to 1200 BC.