From Battle Factory to Pax Robotica

by Gil Hova

I’ve been casting about for a new name for Battle Factory for awhile now, but I think I’ve finally hit on one: Pax Robotica.

My problem with the old name was that it sounded too much like a wargame. I strongly believe that a good game name prepares players for what they’re about to play. If the name is misleading, it creates a dissonance that the game has to overcome.

Like Hey, That’s My Fish. This is a tense and somewhat savage little board game whose title and cover art turn off anyone over the age of eight. I’ve had to twist arms to get people to play this game, and people are usually surprised at how much fun the game actually is. Even a more generic name like “Penguins” would have been more inviting.

Why borrow trouble? Name the game properly the first time, and players know what they’re in for.

So I have this economic game that sounds like a wargame. No good. I opened the issue up to my Twitter friends, and I got some great responses, especially from my friends Brett Myers and Sean Weitner. Brett eventually coined “Pax Robotica,” and Sean immediately jumped on it. I think I’m going to keep it.

As for the game’s latest playtest: it went very well. One of my playtesters, A, was playing her third game and won. She’s become one of the game’s most vocal fans. Pretty good for someone who wouldn’t play the game originally, and only relented when her boyfriend promised to buy her dinner.

It was interesting, because the other two players bid each other up like crazy on the first round. I think the winning bid was in the mid-twenties. That hurt them both for the rest of the game, as A and I were able to get bots on the board in the first couple of rounds. That seems to be a huge key to success in the game, as we made a good amount of money and points from it.

I suppose I could introduce rules to limit players’ bids in the first round, but I’d rather not. I can’t hold their hands, and I especially don’t want do do this with more rules. They’ll just have to figure it out for themselves (although a tip in the rulebook is probably a good idea).

I bought a Level 5 bot in Round 4, and that seemed to be my undoing. A entered the last round with more money than me, and overtook me with some big builds. She won by 9 points.

I’m now at the 80% mark, which means I’m halfway done. Any game designer can tell you this: half your work is getting your game to 80%. The other half is getting that last 20% done. Sometimes getting from 90% to 95% can be excruciating, because you have to tear down game elements you’ve trusted for months. You’re taking two steps backwards for what you hope will be five steps forward.

So what’s left?

My biggest concern with the game is still the complexity of building robots. Building a bot means getting money and victory points from the sale, and I don’t know if there’s any way to simplify that without lobotomizing the game. If I specify in the rules that one player is responsible for the scoreboard (like how players divide themselves in Power Grid into Banker, Resource Schlepper, and Power Plant Card-Flipper, or how there are Security and Communications Officers in Space Alert), then it might not be too bad.

I’ve finally gotten around to updating the components, and that’s made bot building much easier. Bots now stand in plastic stands, color-coded for each player. This makes bot placement more intuitive, because players can’t place the bots without the stands (before, they had to place their bots on cardboard squares, and this was easy to forget).

Ideally, I’d like there to be a tough choice between spending your money at the auction, on one big bot, or several smaller bots. Right now, it seems that several smaller bots is the dominant strategy. I may have to tweak some numbers to make the other two strategies more viable.

I’ve raised the High Bid reward to three points. I was worried that it was too much during our game, but now I’m thinking it’s okay. Lowering it back to two would make the auction irrelevant. I may even raise it to four or five, just to see if I can make the auction too powerful. Once I get to that stage, I can split the difference.

The game took about two hours with four players. So I’ve decided that this is a four player game at maximum. No more five-player dreams. Maybe I’ll make a lighter game with this auction mechanism for 6.

My first few playtests of a game are always with other designers, just so no one gets disappointed playing a broken game. With a new name, better components, and solidifying rules, I think Pax Robotica is finally ready for a non-designer playtest.