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Rolling Realms: Micro Dojo

You’ll know from my one of my recent articles that I’m a big fan of Roll-and-Writes games, and just recently I picked up Rolling Realms – a Stonemaier (meta)game that distills elements each of the publisher’s games into various ‘realms’ that make up the game for a unique experience each time.

A ‘research’ session in progress

One of the exciting aspects of Rolling Realms is the idea that more realms, including crossover games from outside of the Stonemaier games catalogue, can be easily added in future. In fact two additional realms have already been announced. Whilst playing the game I couldn’t help but put my game designers cap on! I found that it has a fairly balanced framework that can be used to derive several principles with which to create and benchmark new realms. As well as digging in to the numbers, I used this to create my very own Micro Dojo realm to fit into Rolling Realms.

If you want to skip straight to the Micro Dojo realm you can go to the end of the article. For more details on the analysis of Rolling Realms and how I used that framework to build the Micro Dojo realm, continue on below.

Disclaimer: This is not an official Stonemaier product. This is fan-made content for personal use, and printed versions cannot be distributed or sold. More info on Stonemaier’s fan content policy here.

Realm Thematics

Stonemaier games tend to have fairly unique mechanics, or combinations of mechanics, that make them recognisable. Rolling Realms abstracts those mechanics, or typically just one of them, into a very simplified form that is still reminiscent of the original game.

In the Scythe realm for example, the core mechanic of gaining a resource with a top action and spending a resource to gain an additional bottom action is captured in Rolling Realms. The area control, resource management, and scoring systems are far too complex to capture in Rolling Realms, but it is still recognisable to anyone who has played Scythe.

Realms: Scythe and Between Two Cities

In Between Two Cities, the concept of your score being based on the lower of your two cities is captured by your realm score being dependent on your other two realms. Euphoria evaluates dice ‘totals’ in an area when placed. Tapestry has you fit objects to fill a 9×9 grid. Viticulture combines multiple objects to create a final product…

To create a Micro Dojo realm then, it’s necessary to catalogue the key recognisable aspects of the game. I consider this to be simplified to:

  • Move workers on a 3×3 board
  • Spend resources to purchase buildings
  • Score predetermined objectives

The worker movement aspect is the core of the game experience, and in particular the tension with your opponent that it invokes, so a 3×3 grid is a must in the Micro Dojo realm. Gaining resources and then spending them to obtain an ability or score points is also something that is easily abstracted into the Rolling Realms format. All of the objectives in Micro Dojo rely on player interaction to evaluate which player scores points, and since there is no player interaction in Micro Dojo this was part of the game that didn’t make it into the realm. So now there is an outline in place for the Micro Dojo realm – a 3×3 board, and possibly with 6 available buildings.

Realm Balance

Rolling Realms’ has two (maybe three) great advantages that make adding and balancing a new realm very simple.

Rolling Realms’ modular approach, where 3 different realms are chosen for each of 3 rounds, means that two games won’t be the same (with around 90,000 unique combinations). This modular approach means that realms can be designed and balanced in almost complete isolation. Unlike complex euro games with unique interactions between abilities, each realm is effectively independent and linked to the other only through common resources. As long as the realm is internally balanced (i.e. in line with the framework detailed here) then it will fit well within the Rolling Realms…realm. The exciting thing about this from a game design perspective is that it makes the game easily extensible, as already demonstrated by the official Terra Mystica promo pack and the very meta Rolling Realms realm.

Rolling Realms Terra Mystica (Credit: Stonemaier Games)

Secondly, Rolling Realms uses shared dice and a shared set of realms (like X-and-write’s such as Welcome To or Railroad Ink) as opposed to personal or semi-shared resource like in Ganz Schon Clever or Hadrian’s Wall. This means that, since all players have access to the exact same resources, it becomes a game that rewards the most skilful use of those resources. More importantly for balancing purposes, it allows for somewhat imperfect balance without affecting the enjoyability of a game. Internal balance issues in games typically cause frustration when they favour one particular player (e.g. they drew the ‘broken’ card or got the ‘best’ player character) and usually when this is a result of random chance. If one particular realm is viewed as stronger or easier to complete than the other, then all players have an equal opportunity to exploit that realm. Whilst a totally overpowered realm would be undesirable, it does mean less overall playtesting is required to create a suitable realm. This analysis should go a good way towards creating a balanced realm.

Realm Action Economy

First let’s take a look at the action economy in the game. There are 9 turns in each round, with two dice being placed each turn, and as each realm can only be activated once per turn, this ordinarily means that 9 spaces is the maximum number that can be completed.

RealmAction Spaces
Between Two Cities9
Between Two Castles10
Charterstone12
Euphoria12
My Little Scythe12
Pendulum11
Scythe12
Tapestry9+?
The Society9
Viticulture9
Wingspan9
Number of Action (dice) spaces available by Realm

As mentioned above, 9 is the maximum number of dice that can normally be placed in a realm, so Between Two Castles, Charterstone, Euphoria, (My Little) Scythe and Pendulum are immediate standouts . Most of those realms manage this by offering ways to place additional dice; Euphoria allows doubles to placed for ‘free’, Charterstone allows all matching crates to be crossed off at once, and Scythe allows extra spaces to be crossed off by spending resources.

Realms: Between Two Castles and Euphoria

Another aspect to look at here rather than the number of available spaces is how many dice are required for a maximum score. A lot of realms require every single box to be complete in order to score the maximum 6 stars (see the section below on scoring) however Pendulum and My Little Scythe do not. This means that it is possible to score the maximum 6 stars even with no (intrinsic) way to obtain place additional dice and more than 9 available spaces. The only realm that seems like an outlier here is Between Two Castles – it requires 10 dice for a maximum score and no method of placing an extra dice without spending 3 Pumpkins.

The Micro Dojo realm would need to have 9 available spaces at least to fit the 3×3 grid that is the central playing area of the original game (or perhaps 5 if ignoring the starting corner spaces). If the available spaces go beyond that, some method of placing additional dice would be required.

Realm Scoring

Obviously, it should be feasible to score all 6 stars for a realm, so I wanted to look at the minimum possible dice needed , assuming optimal dice rolling. The table below shows the minimum number of dice needed, and whether that also leads to a ‘complete’ realm.  (If you have a better Tapestry solution do let me know!).

RealmMinimum Dice for 6 StarsRealm Complete
Between Two Cities6No
Between Two Castles10Yes
Charterstone7Yes
Euphoria3No
My Little Scythe0No
Pendulum8No
Scythe6Yes
Tapestry9?Yes
The Society9Yes
Viticulture6No
Wingspan9Yes

Aside from Euphoria and My Little Scythe, all of the realms require at least 6 dice to score 6 stars. In fact, the average minimum number of dice needed to score 6 stars is about 6.6 across all the realms. This is the best case scenario but does give a good minimum for the number of dice needed to get the maximum score in the Micro Dojo realm – at least 6.

Of course scoring 6 points in all 3 realms is challenging, if not impossible in some realm combinations, but I was curious to dig further into this scoring pattern. The chart below maps how points are delivered per dice, assuming an optimal path to 6 points. Some realms offer points at a fairly even pace (Scythe for example at a rate of about 1:1). Some realms require a heavier investment up front to begin scoring (such as The Society and Tapestry). Others deliver their points in chunks (such as Viticulture, Pendulum and Wingspan).

In the games that I have played, I’ve scored an average of 13-14 points per round. Some outlier situations resulted in a round score of around 16 (thanks, Between Two Cities) or lower scores of around 10 (thanks, dice gods), but an expected score of 13-14 per round means an average score per realm of about 4.5 stars.

Realm Resources

As a general rule across the realms, placing a dice seems to lead to 1 resource generated (whether pumpkin, heart or coin). This assertion is instinctual given that, on their own, few spaces do ‘nothing’ and few spaces provide two resources. Let’s have a look at the numbers in more detail by seeing how many resources are available and how many dice are needed to obtain them:

RealmPumpkinsHeartsCoinsTotalAction SpacesRatio
Between Two Cities4441291.33
Between Two Castles3339100.9
Charterstone2226120.5
Euphoria44412121
My Little Scythe6*6*6*18*121.5
Pendulum6*6*6*18*111.64
Scythe2226120.5
Tapestry33399+1-
The Society333991
Viticulture222690.67
Wingspan222690.67
Micro Dojo
Resources to action spaces ratio

Firstly, and rather unsurprisingly, resource are equally spread across every single realm. That is the number of Pumpkins, Hearts and Coins available are the same in any given realm. Though it seems like an obvious point that realms should have equal internal balance as well as overall balance, it is reminder that the Micro Dojo realm should also have equal resources (and that these resources are about equally accessible, with no one resource harder or easier to obtain than another).

Secondly, my assertion above that placing a dice leads to 1 resource generated is about right, at an average of 0.97 per dice. However, this average is calculated on the basis of a fully completed realm. Since scoring points is the ultimate goal of the game, and resources simply smooth the way to get there (the 0.1 points per resource being fairly nominal), it is also interesting to look at how many resources are generated when following the optimal scoring path.

RealmResourcesDiceRatio
Between Two Cities460.67
Between Two Castles9100.9
Charterstone670.86
Euphoria030
My Little Scythe0*0*0*
Pendulum080
Scythe0*60*
Tapestry991
The Society991
Viticulture360.5
Wingspan690.67
Resources generated whilst following optimal scoring

When following an optimal scoring path (i.e. the minimum number of dice needed to obtain 6 points) the number of resources generated per dice is about 0.5. In several cases this is because no resources are generated when exclusively focusing on points, or in the case of Scythe because the gained resource is offset by a resource spent.

Realms: Tapestry and Charterstone

Finally, an approach that focuses on optimising gathering all of the resources in a realm (whilst ignoring scoring) results in an average ratio of about 1.2 per dice. Hardly enough above the baseline to warrant resource gathering over scoring points as a strategy, and so I’ve omitted it here. I also charted the delivery of resources for the optimal scoring case above (much like I charted the scoring path) to see if resources were generally delivered consistently, front loaded, or back loaded. Since the optimal scoring path is not particularly realistic however I’ve also excluded it from the analysis. In actuality, given the typical ‘1 resource per die’ finding above, I expect any deviation from the optimal scoring path (due to dice randomness) to be spent generating resources.

The real number of resources per dice is of course somewhere in the middle, as players balance the randomness of the dice rolled with the current game state whilst trying to optimise scoring. I briefly mentioned above the number of dice needed to ‘complete’ a realm, and in the case of both My Little Scythe and Pendulum, more dice are required than are available (12), so the actual numbers may be skewed slightly. Nevertheless, this gives a good guidelines for creating a Micro Dojo realm where a dice placement can be expected to generate a single resource on average, with slightly less for a scoring path that leads to 6 points.

Bringing it All Together

Bringing all of the principle parts of the framework together now gives a pretty good baseline for creating a realm. Naturally the realm could (and probably should) deviate from these principles in some areas, lest it be a distinctly ‘average’ and uninteresting realm to play with. But as mentioned above these principles can help benchmark the realm and ensure it has a reasonable fit in Rolling Realms:

Theme

  • Capture just one of the key mechanical elements of the original game
  • Use a common language, resource and object elements

Action Economy

  • No realm has less than 9 action spaces
  • Realms with more than 9 action spaces should:
    • not require all of them to be completed for maximum score
    • and/or should offer ways to place additional dice

Scoring

  • It should be possible to score 6 points in a realm independently
  • A typical score for the realm should be 4-5 stars
  • Scoring 6 points in a realm requires at least 6-7 dice on average

Resources

  • Resources should be equally distributed in a realm
  • Resources should be equally obtainable in a realm
  • Resources should be gained at a rate of 1 per dice on average
  • Following an optimal scoring path should yield approximately 0.5 resources per dice

Micro Dojo Realm

I actually went through several different designs for Micro Dojo, with the one I liked best below. This realm (and one of the alternate designs) is available to download and print: (Download the printable realm here)

Rolling Realms: Micro Dojo

Starting with the idea of movement I toyed with a few methods of capturing the mechanic. First was an approach using circles and crosses to simulate moving a different meeple to the one previously. This led to a rather ‘standard’ path each game though. In the end, it occurred to me that a big part of the movement mechanic in Micro Dojo is having your opponent block spaces – this is represented by having spaces get marked off according to the other die roll. Another design also included building spaces (with the concept of spending resources for some benefit) which, whilst interesting from a play standpoint, proved complicated from a graphical design perspective (as well as balance) and ultimately I chose to go with the more simple design.

As a nod to fans of the original, I’ve also tried to distribute the resources in appropriate space on the board (with stars for Action spaces, Coins where Gold would be, Food where Food would be, and Hearts filling in the gaps).

Balancing all of the numbers to align with the principles above was actually more challenging than I expected, with resources and stars needing to be multiples of 3 (and all evenly distributed). Adding two spots to each ‘square’ (making the total 18) was much easier to balance and captured the feel of the original game more elegantly. Just like with the other realms let’s take a look at the numbers:

Action Spaces18 (9)
Minimum Dice for 6 Stars9
Resources Available15 (9)
Resource Ratio1
Resource Ratio for Optimal Score0.66
Rolling Realms: Micro Dojo vital statistics

The realm has 18 spaces which is far over what any other realm has. In reality the number of available spaces is around 9, since each time a dice is placed another space will also (usually) be marked off.

Since optimal scoring requires every space to be complete, this is a realm that could actually be quite challenging to complete fully. The resources granted for a ‘complete’ realm is a little above the average which I think is fine to offset some of the difficulty scoring points.

I expect the first 3 stars to be fairly easy to score (needing only a single dice), the 4th and 5th stars to be a little more challenging, and the 6th one to be very difficult. This mirrors Tapestry in that way, and is about in line with the expected score of 4-5 points for any particular game. Having to pay attention to the other rolled dice adds some additional complexity due to the ‘spacial’ element of scoring the final 3 stars.

I believe this is a realm that is quite ‘balanced’ from a numbers perspective, but that offers a lot of flexibility early on in the round whilst getting more and more challenging as the realm gets closer to completion.

Conclusion

I’ll let you in on a little secret. Most of that number crunching and analysis came about after I had put together an outline for Micro Dojo. It’s true that game design is as much art as it is science, and the first stage of the design was making sure the game feels about right.

After that baseline experience was in place, all of the analysis here could be used to benchmark the realm. If the number of dice needed, or resources granted, or path to 6 points, were wildly different to the realms that already existed then the Micro Dojo realm would feel like a square peg in a round hole. Then, borrowing ideas from other realms to either accelerate dice placement (Scythe, Euphoria, Charterstone), ‘chunk’ points awards (Wingspan, Viticulture), or pump up resource generation (Pendulum, Between Two Cities), a unique realm could be created that easily fits alongside the existing ones. In effect, I had 11 mini games to use as a reference to create a number 12.

Analysing and drawing out the Rolling Realms framework was a really enjoyable process, like teasing out the hidden structure behind a musical masterpiece, or seeing the clear image pop out of a magic eye picture. It was made even more exciting by having a purpose for such an analysis in creating the Micro Dojo realm.

If you haven’t played Rolling Realms yet I urge you to consider picking it up (or trying out the Print-and-Play, or the web application). If you include Micro Dojo as one of your realms, I’d be honoured to have it played alongside Jamey Stegmaier’s creation, and even more so if you let me know your thoughts and experience with it so it can be improved!

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