Colonial Twilight: Playing the Game Solitaire

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In previous Inside GMT articles, the designer Brian Train has written extensively on the various game play features of Colonial Twilight. In this article he asked me –the solitaire designer for Colonial Twilight– to talk about playing the game solitaire.

As is familiar from the other games in the COIN Series, Colonial Twilight will be shipping with a solitaire opponent with which you can both learn the game and hone your skills in preparation for a 2-player encounter, as well as have some challenging solitaire gaming fun. Your opponent will be the FLN “bot”, as these COIN Series non-players have become more colloquially known.

Design Challenges

The 2-Player Setting.

Those of us who have already played a COIN game against the “bots” will know that at best they are uncooperative allies and at worst collectively conspiring to bring the player down. Colonial Twilight, however, is a 2-player game meaning the “bot” is all alone against an intelligence that’s far more flexible and creative than a one-page flowchart can probably ever be.

Colonial Twilight also features an exciting and innovative sequence of play track that in many ways works rather differently from the one featured in the 4-player COIN games. One of the differences resides in the role of the Operation with a Special Activity the play of which means, among others, that the faction choosing that option must give up their spot as the first eligible faction on the next card.

For the solitaire design challenge, however, this meant that we could not really give the “bot” –at least without breaking the game– the usual rules exception given everywhere else in the COIN Series, namely, that the non-player always gets to play an Operation with a Special Activity regardless of what the sequence of play would allow.

From the start, then, we knew it was going to be a challenge to construct a capable “bot” for this game. Despite this, I was amazed to see that the FLN “bot” that began to emerge was actually competitive even without introducing much by way of extra rules exception to boost it. As I see it, this is due to a few factors.

First, the Government appears to be the more difficult side to play in Colonial Twilightso designing the FLN “bot” was a little more forgiving in terms of the efficiency that needed to be built into it. Second, in terms of overall complexity, Colonial Twilight is at the lighter end of the COIN Series spectrum. This has the effect of enabling a more efficient “bot” design without too much non-player priorities overhead.

In hindsight, we can be thankful for the presence of the above mitigating factors as it would have been difficult to come up with rules exceptions that would not have at the same time thrown off balance and broken Brian Train’s delicately balanced 2-player design.

Third, early on in the design process we decided to limit ourselves to construing and testing the “bot” mainly in the context of the short scenario. This allowed us to tailor the “bot” for the particular challenges this scenario poses.

Finally, we did introduce one subtle but efficient rules exception to boost the FLN “bot”. I’m not going to say more about this exception than that it concerns the optional rule regarding the final Propaganda round. I do not want to ruin the fun of you exploring and getting to know the game and the “bot”.

The Feel.

A second central design challenge has to do with my personal solitaire design aim of always seeking to create a solitaire experience that feels as much as possible like playing the game against a human opponent. That was the aspect that originally blew my mind about Volko Ruhnke’s and Örjan Ariander’s “bots” in Cuba Libre and other COIN games. I feel that this time, with the FLN “bot” really receiving minimal external help, we might have achieved an even greater degree of realism.

Something Tried and Tested, Something New

As in the previous volumes of the COIN Series, in Colonial Twilight the “bot” takes the form of a set of action priorities laid out in a flowchart. In addition, a more verbose, regular text version of the priorities is provided in the rule book. A set of examples of solitaire play can be found in the Playbook.

A sample of a new concept for the random spaces map included with Colonial Twilight. Roll two dice, the first die is the “tens” (say, 3), the second die is the “ones” (say, 1). Then find the corresponding space on the map, that is, 31 Algiers. Follow the arrows to find a legal candidate space, if needed.

I came to COIN “bot” design essentially as a fan of the Series, especially of the solitaire game, and from the start it was in my mind to address inconveniences that I had faced while playing these games solitaire.

Flowcharts.

The flowcharts are, in my view, an indispensable aid when playing the game solitaire. As a fan I had sometimes struggled with the interpretation of some particular priorities.

Therefore, in Colonial Twilight –as well as in my “bot” variant for A Distant Plain (in the issue #30 of the C3i magazine) and my Axis “bot” in Mark McLaughlin’s Hitler’s Reich (on GMT’s P500 list right now) the flowcharts use particular formatting methods intended to improve their readability.

To give a brief example, already on the level of formatting we explicitly distinguish between the numbered sequential priorities and the lettered tie breaker clauses that are used to narrow down the selections made within the sequential priorities: first, Rally here, and within that, prioritize spaces with such and such characteristics. The idea has been to remove as many as possible of the interpretative ambiguities as to when exactly and where a given priority applies.

A detail from the flowchart for the non-player FLN.

The adjacent sample image of the flowchart shows how the flowcharts incorporate the numbers and letters in what hopefully constitutes an easily accessible flowchart design. The feedback we have received thus far certainly is encouraging. Once again, Charlie Kibler has worked his graphic design magic on the flowcharts and the other non-player materials to make the final product look great like we have come to expect it from the GMT Games products.

***

Considerable efforts were put into designing and extensively testing the FLN “bot” for Colonial Twilight. We sincerely hope and believe that what you are going to be having in your hands is a very intense, if not cut-throat, and quick playing solitaire game that preserves the spirit and feel of Brian Train’s design.


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