Last night I tested version 12.2 of Plutocracy. It went shockingly bad because of some of the changes I made. Because it went so poorly I didn’t feel bad about making a lot of on the fly rules changes to test some things out so it ended up being a very productive test. It also made me reflect on the journey this design has taken.
When I started gathering my pictures and going over the versions of Plutocracy I realized my versioning has not been very strict and some versions blend into each while others have distinct different versions within a single version number. I’m not good at this sort of organization. I’m much more interested in making the changes than properly organizing what exactly version 6 meant.
It wasn’t even until version 4 or 5 that I actually organized my files by version. Some versions used pieces from past versions, so their folder is an incomplete game. So this timeline is the best reconstruction I could come up with.
This is by far the longest I have worked on a design and the largest game I have attempted to make. Plutocracy started as an entry for The Game Crafter’s Big Box Challenge. Though the core idea of a game based on currency manipulation was something I had been trying to figure out for a few months.
From the beginning I had a few core goals for this game. First, it needed to fit the criteria for the contest, which was pretty open. Priced from $30-$60 fit in a large retail box and play in 1-2 hours. Second, I wanted it to follow Stonemaier Games’ 12 Tenets of Game Design so that I could pitch it to them if it went well. Third, it would be a 4X game with an emphasis on manipulating multiple currencies.
Based on that I made the first version. v1 was medieval themed. There were 3 kingdoms. Each kingdom had it’s own currency. There was also gold, which was a universal standard currency that the others could be measured against.
The unique hook of the game was that players didn’t have their own kingdom. Instead they used influence to manipulate all of the kingdoms in an attempt to have the most valuable fortune at the end of the game.
This version had players drafted action cards to start each round. The kingdoms would be moved around a board made of hex tiles that would be discovered a steely moved. Each kingdom had 4 stats; economy, technology, military, and culture. The economy controlled the value of that kingdom’s currency against the gold standard. Technology gave bonuses to other stats. Military gave bonuses in battles. And culture controlled how many points each kingdom’s influence was worth.
Players collected influence in the kingdoms that they then used to manipulate those kingdoms into certain actions. These actions could be beneficial for the kingdom or detrimental. The goal was to maximize your personal profit.
The game did not play out the way I had hoped. Players had no reason the make the kingdoms battle, or explore. Players just manipulated the economy and traded currency. Buy the cheapest currency, boost its economy, exchange for the new cheapest currency, repeat. The game was boring and winning relied more on player position than anything else.
The issue of player incentives is something that still plagues this design. When players don’t control any pieces on the board they are hesitant to do anything that could benefit an opponent.
The positive things I learned from v1 were that players enjoyed manipulating the currency and the combat system worked well, even though players didn’t want to battle. The initial combat system had each kingdom in a battle add influence cards to a pile, then players could add additional influence from their supplies to try and sway the battle. Only half the cards from the pile would be revealed, so adding influence would change the probability of winning but often wouldn’t guarantee a win.
In version two I changed the theme to sci-fi and the kingdoms became empires. I just enjoy designing in that space more. The major update in this version was replacing the currency cards and influence cards with cubes that represented both depending on where they were. In the original version currency and influence were almost completely interchangeable. This simplified tracking information and cubes were easier to move around than cards. I also changed the card drafting to players having a hand of action cards since the drafting was seen as a waste of time.
This was a lot less fiddly, combat changed slightly to have cubes put in a bag since you can’t have a secret deck of cubes. But the players still lacked incentives to do anything except currency manipulation.
In version three I changed the way planets worked. Players could now activate a planet to manipulate an empire’s stats. This made players start exploring so they could find the planets with the right actions. This worked, but the planet abilities weren’t properly limited, so players had chains of actions that gave them absurd amounts of influence. They could do anything, and there was no challenge.
Combat was still not worth it and players didn’t care about changing the technology or military stats. They only cared about manipulating the economy, which controlled each currencies’ exchange rate, and the culture, which controlled the point value of the currency/influence. In this version I added diplomacy tracks for how each empire interacted with each other. No one cared.
In an attempt to get players to care about the technology stat I changed it from just being bonuses to allowing an empire to build different structures that gave bonuses. This was much stronger than the previous bonus system, but players only cared about the structures that affected culture and thus the value of their influence.
Partially in an attempt to add a solo mode and to incentivize players to do things, I added event cards and goals. If players made an empire complete a goal the player got bonus points. The events pushed things to happen on the map and stat tracks so players had more uncertainty and couldn’t just focus on the economy. It didn’t fix any of the problems of over powered planet abilities or make players do anything other than manipulate the economy and culture.
Version six had some major changes to try and deal with the issues of the last 3 versions. Planets were much simpler. They no longer had activated abilities. They gave you a bonus when discovered and that was it. I also changed all of the stat tracks to be based on building structures. When an empire built a structure to was removed from their stats track and revealed a new value for that stat. Each additional building cost more influence to build so it stopped the board from being over run with cubes and made higher levels more difficult to reach.
The action cards were removed in favor of a rondel. Players could perform an empires next action in the rondel for free or they could pay extra influence to move further along and use the action they wanted. This made turns move quickly and pushed players to perform a variety of actions. They could no longer just manipulate the economy because the needed to explore new planets so they could build structures to change the economy. Tying the actions I wanted players to take with the actions they already liked doing was a big breakthrough for this design.
Problems still remained though. Combat was still avoided and since players only took a single action on a turn there wasn’t much control over the board state. Any advance you made for an empire could easily be undone before your next turn.
Version seven was the last update before the game was submitted to the contest. It is by far the best looking version to date with art by C. M. Perry which he offered to do for free because he’s just a really nice guy who likes to help people.
Besides looking nice this version had a lot of radical changes, mostly geared towards streamlining the game. The planet tiles were changed to a static board. This allowed me to use the connections of planets to control the flow of the game, but it removed any hint of exploration in the game.
Since players never cared about the technology track or military track I cut them. And since the economy track and culture track had become almost the same thing over the last few versions I combined them into a single track. Empires now built pyramids on planets which increased the value of their influence for exchanges in game and scoring at the end of the game. Only being able to build one pyramid on most planets forced empires to expand. I added 3 more empires for a total of 6 so the board was very tight and manipulating economies required combat, and expansion.
I also removed the universal credit currency (gold in v1). It wasn’t actually necessary and just added cost to an already expensive game.
The rondel was simplified to moving, building, exchanging and taxation. There was a lot to like about this version. Whoever I didn’t get a full play test in before the deadline. Once I did get a test in I realized a pretty big problem. The end game was all the planets having a pyramid built on them. As it turned out, that was a really hard thing to do with empires fighting over space and not moving far enough out.
Plutocracy did make it to the finals of the contest and I’m still waiting on the results. But that didn’t slow down the design process.
I got rid of the rondel. It worked well but players didn’t have enough control. Instead, players had several actions they could do. Actions cost influence and that was the only limiting factor. Turns became very thinky in the mid to late game and it started to drag. I also added a seventh empire. Since each empire could only be exploited once a round and all empires being exploited triggered the end of round I thought this was a very clever way to create a rotating start player each round regardless of the player count.
I added an explore mechanic back in. Empty planets started with a random explore token. When an empire entered the planet they revealed the explore token and either the player got a bonus of influence or some cubes were removed from the planet. This did the trick and players pushed to explore early game.
Games dragged and it was hard to reach the end game of filling every planet. Also the scoring system left something to be desired. Players needed to collect enough influence cubes from an empire to equal 1 point. This was based on the number of colonies (formerly pyramids) the empire had built. at its best each influence equaled 1 point. At its worst it took 5 influence to equal 1 point. Since any remainder wasn’t counted players ended with scores in the 5-8 range and a lot of wasted cubes.
I removed some planets from the board to speed up the game. It now played in a good time and ended just as players were running out o things to do. I changed the currency system so instead of ranging from 1/5 of a point to 1 point currency started at 1 point and each level doubled it. This made it possible to do any exchanges between currencies without needing to make change and had players ending with scores that felt like they had achieved something with no wasted cubes.
Since v8.2 was working pretty well I decided to start adding in some features to make the game more interesting. Each empire had a unique technology that helped them in some way and players could buy technologies for other empires to increase their power. This worked but the way I implemented it was hard to track and it slowed play down. Also the technologies were not balanced so only a few were actually bought.
I added asteroids to the board to complicate movement and make more tactical decisions and added the option of alliances to help empires grow and also a penalty for breaking alliances so players had a way to really ruin an empire by making them attack a friend.
Exploring was changed from tokens on planet to a deck of cards just to be easier to adjust the probability.
Because of all these added systems each empire had its own board for tracking its stats. Th game took up a lot of space.
Version 10 was a minor change. I modified the board layout a bit and changed the technology to cards that were easier to see what empire had what technology.
I was tired of redesigning the board every version to balance game play, so I changed it back to modular tiles. Except it had 3 planets per tile and the board was setup ahead of time instead of drawn as it was explored. I did a solo test o this version an dated movement was too difficult. The layout and asteroids were just too punishing.
I changed to hex tiles with 4 planets on each. This made a much nicer board with a lot of variable setups. I added some wormhole tiles for extra mobility and some special tiles with riskier but lucrative explore abilities. I also changed the explore cards to a more complicated system that I though would push players to explore with more than one cube. It turned out to be much too punishing and nearly wiped out the board from exploring.
Version 12 was focused on streamlining the game again after it had become bloated with technology systems and explore decks.
The technology was placed on the tiles, so having a colony on a tile gave an empire that ability. No need for players to purchase technologies or track cards or chits. It was much simpler. Instead of player shaving to go through all 7 empires exploit action the round reset after each player had 1 turn. This was to fix a complaint about uneven turn counts. It also helped with the issue of turn 7 usually being very bad for whoever got stuck with it.
I changed the explore system to dice which were much easier to deal with than the cards and allowed a constant variety instead of players being able to card count their chances. However I made the dice way to friendly to the players and they just kept collecting more and more influence from exploring. This made turns take a very long time and caused a broken strategy of constant exploration.
To further streamline the game I added the empire boards onto the planet tiles. So everything was condensed. Also since the 7 exploits per round system was removed, I decided to remove the exploit each empire once per round limit. I wanted to free up players from restrictions and instead added an action limit per turn. So instead of being limited by their influence players could only do 4 things on a turn.
And since we didn’t need 7 empires to create a rotating start player the number of empires in the game became variable based on player count. And the entire round structure was removed so the game was just continuous turns. It moved along much smoother than previous versions.
I also made the tiny change of making players pay to build a colony. Previously they just removed an influence from a planet to build. This broke the game. No one wanted to pay to build. Players just exploited as much as they could. in a few turns the board was wiped out. Players were forced to make plays they didn’t want in order to move the game forward.
To salvage the play test I made some changes on the fly to test out some things. It was very useful and pointed out some very important and fragile parts of the game.
The major struggle with this design remains player incentives. It is a very tough thing to balance when any benefit to an empire could help your opponents.
Over all the game has made great progress in the last few months. It’s getting to a point where I like a lot of the mechanisms. It’s just a matter of balancing them so they are powerful enough that players want to do them, even if it helps an opponent, but not so powerful that they allow someone to run away with the game.
Next up is lucky version 13. My plan is to fix the issues that ruined 12.2 and then keep balancing.