Fiddling with codifying conflict

One of the central gears in the machine that is Corona is that the agents are (ostensibly) facing off against a threat that destabilizes their autarchy. The exact mechanism for dealing with that has continued to evolve throughout the playtesting and redesign process, but it’s one of the most ludic aspects of the experience, to the point that it defines agents’ actions – everything they do that is not strictly interpersonal (agent vs. agent) is in terms of how it affects the overshadowing threat, and it’s possible to win the game, either as a loyalist by dismantling that threat and any complications that spin off from it, or as a traitor by evading detection while escalating it until the state collapses.

So far, the systems I’ve implemented have all worked, but not satisfyingly so with regard to one of my design goals, which is offer at least a taste of really complicated diplomatic and political maneuvering. I want to give players the feeling that they are the upper echelons of governance of a solar-system-wide state perched at the twilight end of a millennium, with all the attendant stress of managing the fine line between peace and disaster.

The most recent incarnation placed three defined threat elements into an interconnected matrix, where actions taken to affect one element ripple out to raise or lower their others. It was an idea that literally happened overnight at Gen Con between two days of playtesting; it serviced, but inelegantly. Ideas for replacing it haven’t really been forthcoming, though, until a brainstorm today. There are four types of threat, corresponding to the four ministries to which agents belong, so perhaps a graph. A crisis point is established at the beginning of the game, and agent actions move this point around the plane in different directions, putting new spins on the situation as it evolves. What starts out as a relatively simple problem can turn into a more nuanced crisis in the wake of the repercussions of agents’ interference for good or ill. The axes (or quadrants, perhaps) correspond to those ministries and provide players with a narrative background against which to frame what’s happening.

To test it out, I ran a dry simulation of how it might work, starting with the simplest possible starting condition. One card was drawn from a deck of playing cards to determine the nature and severity of the crisis point: 10 of Clubs means a comparatively serious issue in the Church of the Autarch. I assumed four players, none of whom were acting overtly treasonous (yet), because I need to see how this plays when things are relatively quiet before worrying about the really heated plots that will come up later. Let’s say a 10 Hearts and 3 Spades are among the cards played: the net change vertically is 7 spaces up toward Hearts. Three other cards move the crisis horizontally: none of the hypothetical players have decided to tip their hands by increasing the crisis at this time, but they all play mid- to low-level Diamonds (2, 4, and 5) for a net shift of 11 points toward Diamonds.

corona crisis graph example start

Players would decide exactly what the narrative dimension of that problem is, which we’ll leave aside for now. Agents play their actions as cards from hand, and as I picture it now, those cards move the crisis point. The specific procedure may take a little bit of tinkering, but in the example span I tried out,

corona crisis graph example move

As you can see, the problem is already pretty migratory. A blatant traitor or very powerful individual actions in any direction can make the crisis pretty swingy. I want volatile crises, but not quite this much. What started as a Church affair is now a Bloodline crisis (Hearts) with a slight Economic component (Diamonds). Also, it occurs to me that without further elaboration, there’s only one way each card will send the crisis, and I’d like there to be an option for e.g. a loyalist to play Clubs to decrease the crisis. Agents are currently required to write down action reports that reveal their real activities for a span as distinct from what they say they’re doing, but streamlining that process seems desirable.

Ultimately, the process is still fiddly. Not all brainstorms yield immediate success: I think there’s still merit in some application of this procedure, but it doesn’t quite solve the problem either. Even though tracking a game state on a Cartesian graph may in some ways evoke the aesthetic of deep political analysis I want, it doesn’t do so in a way that feels like the players are engaging in super-competent high-stakes duels of wits on the fly. The best solution in my opinion is the one that gets players doing this kind of analysis (or feeling like they are) in their heads.