Battle Factory 101

by Gil Hova

The working cover

The working cover

Battle Factory is my newest prototype.  It’s a 2-hour economic game for 3-5 players, featuring perpetual war, lots of robots, and a brutal auction.

In the game, you and your opponents are companies who manufacture war robots, and sell them to various warring nations.  The idea is that you don’t care too much who you’re selling robots to, though you get more points if they survive.  Of course, bots get blown up, but that just means you can sell a better bot in its place.

This game is still an early prototype, which means that it’ll be changing a lot over the next few months.  But I’ve been encouraged by its progress so far.

Wag the Wolf
A couple of years ago, I designed a game called Wag the Wolf.  It’s a game about media companies trying to profit from news about the end of the world.

Wag has two notable features.  First, it has a bizarre deduction mechanism that allows you to score points for publishing information that is somewhat accurate, but not entirely.  Second, it has one of the most evil, brutal auctions you’ll ever see.

I’m quite proud of Wag, and I was blown away when it performed well at the Hippodice game competition in 2006.  But as I was pitching it to publishers, I realized that it had a lot of flaws.  It’s a tough game to teach, and its weight doesn’t really justify its learning curve.  In other words, it’s like waiting in line to go to the supermarket.  If there’s that much buildup, there has to be something behind it.

The main problem is that it has both deduction and bidding elements.  That’s a tough combination.  Both have significant learning curves, so putting them together really hurts.

So this year, I started planning to split Wag into two games.  The first half, the auction mechanism, is in Battle Factory.  The other half, the deduction mechanism, will get its own game that I’ll work on early next year.

Game Summary
Battle Factory lasts five rounds.  Each round has four phases.

  • First, players draft Bot Tech cards.  There are four types of Bots to draft, and for each Tech you have in a Bot type, you can build a more advanced Bot for that type.  For example, if you have 3 levels of Stompbot Tech, you can build a Level 3 Stompbot.
  • Second, players bid for turn order and Government Cards, with the highest bidder getting VP.  Government Cards give players VP, and offer a special benefit depending on the card.  Some Government Cards are one-time use only, others last the whole game.  More about the auction is below.
  • Third, players build and sell Bots to warring nations.  This is represented by four battlefields on the board.  Each battlefield has five squares, but most of the time, only the leftmost square is available for a Bot.  Each square only accepts a specific type of Bot. Every time a player sells a Bot, he gets VP. Higher-level Bots are more expensive to build, but are worth more VP and have a better chance of surviving.
  • Fourth, Wars break out. The more Bots are on a battlefield, the more likely that region will break out into war.  Wars will destroy the lowest-level Bots in a battlefield, but surviving Bots will score VP.

Repeat that five times, and you have a game of Battle Factory.

The Auction

The auction deserves some special mention.  Players bid money, and move their pawns up a special bidding track.  As their bid pawn goes up the track, a Bid Pointer follows along, pointing to the highest bid.  The Bid Pointer has an arrow pointing to the High Bid, as well as a few arrows underneath where other players can actually bid slightly less, as “Underbids.”

The catch is that there are two fewer Underbid arrows than players.  So in a 3-player game, there is one High Bidder and one Underbidder.  In a 4-player game, there is one High Bidder and two Underbidders, and so on.  It’s a bit of Musical Chairs, as the players battle over not being the last one out.

Another cruel catch is that the higher a player bids, the more he has to pay when he folds.  So if you keep bidding up and eventually fold, you’ll have to pay more than if you just fold at the start of the auction.

The High Bidder gets 2 VP and first choice of the Government Cards, which are also worth VP.  Underbidders then choose Government Cards, with the highest Underbid going first.  Players who folded don’t get anything.

Really?  VP?

My friend Carl thought it was athematic to have VP as the victory condition.  He felt that a game like this should be decided by the player who had the most money.

I respect his opinion, and I see where he’s coming from.  But I prefer VP for two reasons.  First, it makes decisions more interesting.  You’ll probably lose money when you sell the higher-ranked Bots, but you’ll get VP.  That’s important, because it’s less money for next round’s auctions.

Second, this game is very susceptible to positive feedback.  That’s the old “runaway leader” syndrome.  It’s tough to address that with a one-dimensional economic system.  So adding a second axis, VP, which are converted from money, is something I’m going to insist on, at least unless I’m proven wrong later.

Recent Changes

This next bit will only make sense to the lucky few who have playtested the game.

  • Were you fortunate enough to play with the orange First Folder cards?  You’ll be relieved to know that they’re gone.  These cards penalized the first player to fold.  I wanted to add some of the savagery from the Wag auction (which presented a separate twist from the deduction side of the game), but once I made the Government Cards worth VP, the First Folder penalty became too much.
  • I had a pretty complex financial mechanism in the game, but I’m going to gut it.The idea was to reward exact change, so a player would prefer to bid a certain amount.  This presented the situation of getting outbid when your bid is exact change, and then having to decide if you’re going to risk overspending, or folding.

    But I wound up with a monstrous financial system, and I was running into the same learning curve problem as Wag the Wolf: too many rules, not enough payoff.

    So my friend Michael had a brainwave: replace the obtuse financial system with straight money, and make the bidding nonsequential.  This means players will be forced to bid more money the higher up they go, like the bids in Amun Re (though I won’t necessarily use triangular numbers).

    This sounds great! It’s exponentially simpler, but retains all the interesting decisions that I wanted, because the breakpoints are now in the bid values instead of the player’s hand.  Do you risk increasing your bid, if it means you can only build two Bots this turn?

  • Another thing I noticed about the game is that players tended to sell Bots to only one side of a particular battlefield.  This is because in the current rules, when a war occurs, the winning side loses its lowest-valued Bot, and the losing side loses its two lowest-valued Bots.Players found this athematic.  They wanted to be rewarded to sell to both sides.  But at the same time, just opening it right up to selling to both sides would remove a lot of the rich tactical nature that the game promises right now.  I want there to be some sort of bonus for selling to the winning side, even if it’s smaller.

    So I’m going to try something different for my next playtest.  For each War Cube you pull out for a specific region, each side will lose one Bot.  Players will then score 1 VP for each bot they have in the region… but only if they have Bots on the winning side.

    I like this because it rewards players for picking the winning side, but it doesn’t necessarily punish players for selling to the other side!  I’m not sure if there’ll be a “squatting” problem, where one player is able to do well by just selling to both sides of the same region, but I doubt it’ll happen.

It looks like I’ll have two opportunities to playtest this game in January.  I’m excited to see where this game will go!