October 7, 2013

Emissary: A Study in Brain-burn and Emergence

Hopefully this whole post doesn't come across as pompous - but here's the gist of what I'm talking about today: I designed a Decktet game called "Emissary" as a Hegemonic-inspired light 4X style game. And, having played quite a number of games so far, I've been pleasantly surprised by the amount of "brain-burn" and also "emergence" that seems to be emanating from the game. Apologies for the self-indulgence - but that's how I feel about it, and it makes me excited.

So, I wanted to take a step back and look at the game through my critical-ish filters and articulate why it seems to induce brain-burn (in a good way mind you!) and emergent gameplay. All this in a game that plays in about 15 minutes per player (and supports 2-4 players). Maybe we can learn something along the way...


Since putting the final polish on Hegemonic as it went into production earlier this year, I've been toying with the idea of doing a significantly "lighter" 4X style game. Interestingly, the original intent behind Hegemonic was to make it a lighter 4X game, but ultimately it ended up being a much more comprehensive affair. I'm ecstatic about how Hegemonic ended up playing - but it still left the question of what a lighter 4X style game might (or should) be.

Over the past year, I've been exploring the Decktet a lot more (For the Love of the Decktet), and had been toying with ideas in my head for how 4X-type gameplay might map onto the Decktet system. Then, I stumbled across the Print-and-Play Express / In-A-Tin Contest, and it was all the prompting I needed to take the concept and make a game out of it.

This is the concept:

An intriguing Decktet game of territory building and espionage for 2-4 players

In the distant hinterlands, beyond the well-traveled mountains and forests, unfolds a curious landscape occupied by the denizens of six nomadic city states. These wandering tribes disregard sovereign boundaries, allowing their populations and developments to intertwine, forming a mystifying and ever-changing mosaic of alliances and settlements. Into this confusion are dispatched the Emissaries of the Great Empires, political agents with a knack for subterfuge. The Emissaries vie for influence among the mingling city states in an effort to unify the domain under their Great Empire’s rule.

In Emissary, players will explore locations on the “Map”, comprised of a grid of cards, and will then collect and use resources to build up influence in these locations. Locations that are adjacent and share a common suit form larger regions, over which players will compete for having the most relative influence. Points are awarded at the end of the game based on the size of each region as well as how much influence a player has in that region.

Gameplay Rundown

First a basic run down of the gameplay from the 4X perspective is in order, although if interested you can grab the full rules [filepage=94095]HERE[/filepage].

1X, 2X, 3X, 4X, ....

The game, drawing from Hegemonic’s gameplay (and Hegemonic’s influences) has players exploring a map (i.e. hex grid) of face down cards from a starting point. Players will place influence onto explored (revealed) cards to “expand” their network of influence, and can subsequently collect resources from cards (i.e. exploit) where they have influence to continue their expansions. Additionally, players are able to push (i.e. exterminate) their opponent’s influence tokens off the cards through a quick action resolution mechanism.

Like Hegemonic, scoring is based on controlling regions, except this time around regions are created organically as the cards are revealed, with series of adjacent cards sharing a common suit forming a larger contiguous region. At the end of the game, players score each by multiplying the number of cards in the region with the total amount of influence they have in that region.

... 5X?

There is one additional aspect to the gameplay that, as I think about it, adds an almost “5x” element to the game: Once revealed, cards in the map can change. When you take an exploration action, you can choose to keep the revealed card in place on the map (and collect its resource value immediately) OR exchange it with any card in your hand putting the new card on the map (but you don’t get resources). Furthermore, an “Exchange” action allows you to pay the resource value of the card at a later point in time and also replace it with one from your hand provided there is no enemy influence on it.

This addition really shakes up the game space and makes the evolution and growth of the “map” far more dynamic, as it can constantly change. Thematically, this change reflects the fact that the tribes occupying various regions are in a constant state of migration/flux/exodus given their nomadic nature – and players have a direct role in guiding these movements at the same time they are trying to build up and maintain influence among the shifting regions. From a gameplay standpoint, it creates a lot of tough choices about the balance between building advantageous regions versus getting resources quicker. It’s a nice dynamic.

The Hegemonic Connection

Two other Hegemonic inspired elements include the interweaving of players’ influence networks. First, most locations allow more than 1 influence token to be placed on the card, so players will quickly intertwine their influence and region controls into an intricate mosaic on the map. Coupled with this, the resource collection mechanic builds in a trading element, where collecting resources from cards containing more than one player’s influence can provide resources to both parties – again forcing some interesting trade-offs around the value of collecting resources when it can benefit your opponent’s too.

Second, the conflict mechanic, and its use of an almost Rock-Paper-Scissor type resolution mechanic with cards in your hand, is reminiscent of Hegemonic. Players simultaneously play a card from their hand, adding its value (based on its rank) to the conflict. The wrinkle is that Crowns always win (regardless of the relative influence) unless both players play a crown (in which case they cancel each other) – or if the other player drops an Ace, which beats the Crown but otherwise loses. A huge part of the game is trying to keep tabs on the flow of crowns and aces so when you attack you can make a logical deduction about what card to play. It adds a lot of tension to the experience

Emergent Brain-Burn

So, what’s all the blathering on I did earlier about the game being brain-burn inducing and/or demonstrating emergent gameplay? The way the tough trade-offs in the action structure comes together around the dynamic creation and shifting of the regions and the spatial interactions between cards makes for novel gameplay situations with no easy answer.

I’m going to digress into a bit of strategizing, but it helps highlight the web of choices that seems to come out of the game.

{1} One strategy has been to try and quickly wall off an area of the play field so only you have access to a few cards. This requires expanding with cheap to build on cards to establish a perimeter, but those cards are subsequently easier to attack by your opponents. One also has to balance walling off cards with the potential to inadvertently end the game earlier by pulling cards out of contention before you can get your influence on them.

{2} An interesting dynamic arises between crowns and aces played to the map versus crowns and aces used in combat. The more crowns that are played to the map, the fewer will be available as a trump in conflicts, making aces in your hand weaker, but it makes the other high rank cards stronger in conflicts. The more aces played to the board makes crowns stronger for conflicts, but with more crowns available the chances of them nullifying themselves becomes greater.

{3} Attacking is often more about posturing than actually attacking. Since you have to move an influence token off your attacking card and onto the targeted card (if you win the conflict), you end up creating an open spot behind your line that a well-positioned opponent can move into. Clever use of Crowns as a staging point the attack can be good, since Crowns can only be occupied by one player’s influence, they are “safe” to attack from provided at least one influence remains back to hold the Crown.

{4} From a scoring standpoint, the biggest gains are earned by having the most influence in the biggest region. Yet with the ability to exchange cards, a large region increasingly comes under pressure for a player to split if it breaks one player’s advantage relative to the others. Especially if this move can be coupled with the new card expanding the splitting player’s control in a different region. You can quickly close score gaps.

{5} The overall balance of the resource engine provides a fair amount of creativity in how to grow your empire. Aces provide a lot of one resource, and influencing a lot of aces on the map can pull in a lot of resources, but aces are also volatile and easier to push opponents off. Crowns can pull in a lot of resources too, but it requires a heavier investment upfront to build them out first. Collection also provides its own set of tradeoffs about to what extent you help yourself versus your opponent by collecting from shared cards – which creates a lot of incentive to build on each other’s cards.

{6} Attacking requires that the attacking and the targeted cards don’t share suits, meaning that you basically can’t attack from within a district. This creates some interesting spatial choices when placing cards in a way that might protect you or create opportunities for attack. A card that does not contribute to an district may not be helpful from a scoring standpoint, but it makes an excellent point of attack. Furthermore, since defeated influence tokens are only removed from the board if there isn’t an open location out of the district to “retreat” to, having a big off-district card can provide a nice place to seek asylum for your influence tokens.

{7} Following from the Tigris & Euphrates inspiration, players are limited to two actions per turn – which can be painfully limiting at times because you always to squeeze a little more out each round. But this limit is what drives many of the tough choices. Do I use actions to generate resources for a bigger and more efficient expansion next turn, but risk my opponent jumping in first? Do I spend an action to explore knowing that it might leave an empty card in easy reach of an opponent? Do I attack now when I have an advantage if it means I leave a card behind the lines open for being influenced since I can’t’ spend another action to re-influence it?


All these trade-offs and layers of considerations makes for a game that pencils out quite simply upon reading the rules into a game that induces a lot of brain-burn (in a good way in my opinion). It’s one of those games where each option comes with its own host of spin-off effects – yet the underlying mechanics aren’t particularly complex. The relationships between cards on the map and the flow of cards in and out of player’s hands create a lot of variety in the play experience and it seems like each game I play some new situation or strategic opportunity presents itself.

Couple this gameplay into a structure that also plays in a very reasonable time frame (10 to 15 minutes per player) and it’s an excellent “high gravity” type game; i.e. quick but dense. At game nights during playtesting, we’ve had a blast playing games back-to-back. And despite the brain-burn, the game doesn’t overstay its welcome.


So, I’m quite happy with how Emissary has turned out – and it did well in the PnP contest as well. I’m continuing to experiment with subtle variations on the rules to continue refining the play experience, but I’m still over joyed about how quickly and smoothly it came together. We’ll have to see what happens next with the design, possibly beyond the Decktet. And of course, if anyone wants to playtest it more and get me feedback, I'd love to hear from you.

But for now, you can check out the Emissary game page and grab the rules and player aid. And if you don’t already have a copy of the Decktet, now is a perfect opportunity to procure a copy; not just for Emissary but for the numerous other fantastic games it has spawned as well.


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