Last week, I discussed the long, stumbling process by which Agricola, Master of Britain was transformed into a solitaire game, and got into some detail about how and why the central cup adjustment mechanism works the way it does. Almost as central as, and spinning out of, that same mechanism is the game’s army-building and battle system. It likewise underwent a dramatic transformation as the game was transformed from two-player contest to solitaire design, though a couple of key elements remained the same. What’s strange is that, perhaps more than anything else, it was these aspects of the original two-player prototype that most obviously screamed, “I am really a solitaire game!” But, alas, I was deaf to all its plaintive entreaties.
So, Agricola has three Legions at his disposal. In the original two-player design, each Legion was a stack of counters that moved together on the map, with both Roman units and local auxiliaries. The auxiliaries used the flip side of the same counters used to represent that tribe in open rebellion. Various tribes had varying ratings for combat, and provided a bonus in their home Region—but were also susceptible to desertion, especially if asked to fight against their native tribe. Auxiliaries and Roman units could be shuffled more-or-less freely from one Legion to the next, so the exact (and potentially optimal) make-up of the three Legions was up to the Roman Player. There was no such army-building element for his opponent, since a primary feature of the campaigns is that the various tribes just could not work together. (Again, this is when it would have been clear to any designer with half-a-brain that this was really a solitaire design, but I had to muddle through with my two-fifths of a brain.)
When a Legionary stack moved into an area occupied by a tribe in rebellion, combat would occur. The Roman player would add up all his combat factors, and then his opponent would add up all his combat factors. I don’t usually use odds-ratio based tables—Von Moltke’s Triumph being a notable exception—but I did here. Well, sort of, anyway: the table would indicate a winner/loser and a modifier for a casualty table. The total “size” of the battle (that is, all combat factors for both sides summed together) would give a column, and each player would cross-reference a separate modified casualty roll against that column to find the number of losses they would sustain.
It was, in a word, boring. And that’s not to say that an odds-based system is always or inherently boring. I’ve enjoyed a lot of odds-based CRTs. But the excitement from those games is produced in aggregate, as multiple attacks are made, succeeded, and rebuffed down the enemy’s line. In a game where one player, for all intents and purposes, has three units (even if they are comprised of multiple units) and battles are rarer, and farther spread apart, an odds-based system just falls flat on its face.
Not too long before the game was transformed into a solitaire title, I got a copy of Frank Chadwick’s A House Divided as a Christmas present from Mary. One of the many, many wonderful things in Chadwick’s wonderful, wonderful design is the way that after each battle, one unit within an army can “level up”, progressing from a lowly recruit to a hardened veteran by surviving the rigors of battle. I thought that I might be able to steal this delightful mechanism for my Agricola game. But again, this was something that was only available to the Roman Player, and again, at this point it was kind of sad really that I didn’t yet realize it was a solitaire game.
But, eventually, as I covered in last week’s article, the obvious occurred to the oblivious, and the game underwent a dramatic make-over. Some of the elements of the combat system stayed the same: the auxiliaries, the army-building, the leveling-up. These were tweaked of course to feed into, and from, the new solitaire mechanisms. Now, for example, those auxiliaries were recruited from the Friendly Cup. Pulling them out was simple enough, but getting units in there was another matter altogether.
There are basically three kinds of cup adjustments in the game: adjustments that move units from Friendly to Unfriendly, adjustments that move units from Unfriendly to Hostile, and adjustments that move Hostile Units to the Unfriendly Cup. There actually isn’t a way to move units from one of the other cups into the Friendly Cup. Instead, you’ll generally need to move Eliminated Units from the Dead Pool into the Friendly Cup during the Housekeeping Phase at the end of the turn.
Basically how that process works is that you look at each of the game’s four Regions one at a time. If the Region has no enemy units, and has a completed “+3” Settlement in it, then Eliminated Units belonging to that Region are going to end up in the Friendly Cup. If there are enemy Units, and no Roman presence whatsoever—no Legions, no Garrisons, no Settlements—then the units are going to go into the Hostile Cup. If neither of those absolute conditions apply, the units go into the Unfriendly Cup. (There’s an exception for the thoroughly civilized blue region, which will default to Friendly instead of Unfriendly.)
Completing a settlement is a multi-step process. First, you need to post a Garrison, which peels off one of your Legion Battle Units. He needs to be placed in an empty box, in a Region without a Tribal Leader. Then, during the Housekeeping Phase at the end of each Game Turn, you’ll need to spend 2 coins to turn that Garrison into a “+2” Settlement, and 2 coins to flip it to a “+3” Settlement. You can’t pay 4 coins in one Game Turn to complete the Settlement in one go; it’s at least going to take you two turns, provided you have the cash to do so. Besides making units friendlier, Settlements are economic engines—increasing your income each Game Turn by 2 coins—and VP engines—providing 1 VP per turn. They result in the automatic elimination of certain units at the end of the Game Turn, and they also make it harder for Tribal Units to be placed there. So, all-in-all, very handy, and you’re going to need to build at least two, if not three of them (you can build up to four) if you want any chance of winning the game. Where and when to place them is the tricky part.
So, when you place a Garrison in a Region, you’re really looking at being able to turn those units into auxiliaries three turns down the road, and chances are if you’ve been able to quiet things down enough to place a Garrison and complete a settlement, there’s not actually going to be a whole bunch of units for you to plop in there. This makes the auxiliaries more than just fodder for your frontlines—though they’re good for that to a degree, and on the whole more disposable than your Legionary Battle Units, which are costly and difficult to replace.
Speaking of the frontlines, that brings us rather neatly to the revised combat system. In last week’s article, I mentioned the two solo games that influenced my decision to make Agricola a solitaire design, Hermann Luttmann’s Invaders From Dimension X and John Welch's Cruel Necessity. The latter featured tactical battles on a separate sheet, where your line (and that of the enemy) were lined up, sometimes randomly and sometimes less randomly, and the opposing wings of each army had a roll-off to see who came out on top. Actions you took on the main map, and events that you drew, gave you a greater measure of control over the set-up, though once the actual fighting begins, the whole thing’s in God’s hands, fittingly so for the ECW. The battle results skewed toward a draw, instead of a decisive victory for either side, also appropriate for that period. I really liked this system, especially the feeling that while you have some control over the make-up of your army, once the thing is in motion you just have to watch and cross your fingers. I thought that a similar model would work well with my army-building/leveling mechanisms.
My system is a bit more granular than Mr. Welch's, and gives the player more control over how his men are deployed. Rather than a single round of roll-offs, combat is resolved over the course of several alternating attack and defense rounds. In attack rounds, each of your units attacks one of the two units adjacent to it. In defense rounds, each of your units is attacked by the two units adjacent to it, and since it uses a staggered square grid (in essence a hex grid), many of the enemy units will contribute their attack factors to two attacks.
If indecisive results were a key feature of the ECW, in Agricola’s time battles were often more decisive, so these battles only end when one of the two sides has been eradicated. The math generally favors the Roman Units, which is accurate for the period. But they can't be stupid about it or blunder into battles they're not prepared for, or else they can get massacred (also accurate).
In most battles though, Romans will suffer one or two casualties, and these are usually absorbed by the auxiliaries. This means that you can’t just be fighting all the time. Not only does it rub the locals the wrong way (tilting them toward the Hostile Cup), but eventually attrition will wear you down. At the same time, in order to level up your troops, you’ll need to participate in battles, and you’re more likely to triumph at Mons Graupius with battle-hardened veterans. I like to have this sort of push-pull feature in my designs, as it makes the situation more dynamic and thus more replayable.