Diary #38 – How’s My Island?

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My recent adventures left me with a huge to-do list: everything from fundamental card design to promotional material needed tweaking. I despaired of ever knowing where to start, until a couple of Gweeples came to my rescue. David and Pushpendra were keen to playtest the game a second time; this necessitated updates to the cards and Tabletop Simulator mod (the Gweeples meet regularly on Facebook and Discord if you are interested in joining them). The playtest revealed a number of complex issues so fasten your seat belts – this is going to be a bumpy ride.

We were testing the new mod, the expansion pack and, most importantly, a player supply of eight meeple rather than nine. It may seem crazy to test a core aspect of the game and an expansion pack simultaneously but in fact it makes perfect sense: the expansion puts pressure on the number of meeple required, so if the game can cope with this extreme scenario it should handle common scenarios well. Specifically, the expansion’s “island” hexes require three meeple, not two, to realise their potential. Though both playtesters started on islands, Pushpendra (on the right of this screenshot) found himself in a proper archipelago:

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Pushpendra immediately got into trouble because of his start point: with so much ocean to explore, his troops were turning into ships all over the place (was this a flaw in the expansion or confirmation of its complexity?) He then started losing cities to David’s aggressive swords-and-slings based strategy. A few turns later, however, David made peace with Pushpendra: “Your water spaces,” he explained, “Are actually protecting your assets”. In the screenshot we do indeed see a pattern resembling a moat between Pushendra’s cities and the rest of the board. The moat had only come about because of the (supposedly) random fall of the hexes; an alternative layout would have resembled a channel and offered very different strategies:

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This realisation was immediately followed a horrible sinking feeling in my stomach: my mod was biased in such a way that the moat was almost guaranteed, and the channel impossible. To understand why we have to rewind to a sunny Saturday in February 2019, before I had even heard of Tabletop Simulator. I had taken my laptop to the café in the Midlands Arts Centre with the intention of bashing out Test of Time’s (then called Dawn of Gnome) first component upgrade. I drew each island hex by laying down ocean top and bottom then filling in land from the bottom left corner. I didn’t even notice that I was biasing oceans to run top to bottom – once I cut them out and threw them in a bag the orientation would randomise immediately. When uploading those same images to Tabletop Simulator, however, there was no equivalent randomisation. Pushpendra’s moat was inevitable.

If only the problems stopped there! You may have noticed in the screenshots above that the island hexes look rubbish. As well as being the wrong size and shape, Tabletop Simulator has chopped them so that the land and water don’t meet at a corner of the hex (I otherwise introduce “diagonal” movement into my hexagonal grid). My novice drawing skills are, once again, the culprit. I had wanted the oceans to be clearly distinct from land, and you’ll notice I applied a texture. Doing this altered the size and shape of the image subtly. “No problem,” I thought, as I sipped tea and listened to families chasing each other around the arts centre, “I can just cut the excess bits off!”. Well Tabletop Simulator can’t – it’s no surprise these images failed to turn out as neat hexagonal tiles:

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There’s one problem which occurs in both physical and virtual form: unlike the standard hexes the island hexes are not symmetrical, so their orientation on the board will make a difference to gameplay. This could provide players who flip them over with an unfair advantage or disadvantage.  I’m still looking for solutions to this problem – here are a few possibilities:

  • Let the exploring player choose the orientation
  • Add a rule stating the player always moves to land after flipping
  • Label the back of each hex with the orientation in which it should be flipped
  • Instruct players to commit to an orientation before flipping
  • Include arrows on the hex to describe its final orientation relative to the exploring player.

This problem is exacerbated by the issue of “handedness”. I’ve tried to include all possible combinations of land and water on my islands, and these two are actually mirror images of each other (ignore the different colours and resource icons):

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This is a very interesting phenomenon which keeps cropping up in my life. I recently taught it to my students in college with the help of a video – there’s actually two mirror-image pairs of objects in this screenshot:

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I started this article with a to-do list: it’s fair to say the list has changed rather than shrunk. I’m only scratching the surface of the island hexes, and I’m thinking of making them a core aspect of my next project (after all, I already made a new game out of Test of Time‘s card replacement mechanic). David was thinking along similar lines when he wondered what the game would look like if most of the hexes were islands. Thanks to Tabletop Simulator I’m able to answer that question:

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