Player balance: The players have a limited number of units, preventing one from growing too strong.
Game balance: The rate that the enemies grow is related both to the number of players and to their current strength, preventing them from getting too strong or too weak.
Resource balance: The same (limited) units are used for subjects, goods and gold so having much of one gives less of another.
Production vs Trade vs War balance: The players may choose different strategies for growing and one strategy chosen will bring negative effects to the other strategies.
Cooperation: The players build fleets, armies and forts together and they also fight battles together.
Prisoners' dilemma: One player may benefit by not cooperating but if all do so, all will lose.
With three simpler games developed, I felt that I wanted to connect all my game ideas and create a bigger game again, without compromising with simplicity. The idea was to combine the economy of Nova Suecia, the military of Bellum se ipsum alet, the factions of Christina Regina, the building of Vasa Regalis and the connections of Tre Kronor Infernum into one game. Would that be possible? I first went to the theme for inspiration and studied the dramatic period when Sweden rose to a European major power. All game mechanisms were there, although I removed the faction mechanisms as they would not really contribute to the game.
Left was a game where players produce goods; use goods to build fleets, armies and forts together or acquire titles individually; connect to overseas provinces; and fight battles against simulated enemies. To make all those game elements work smoothly, I had to minimize the complexity of each. Subjects, goods and gold are all using the same tokens. Production is simply adding one token to each already existing token (or two for overseas provinces), buildings require only three goods, connection is the dependency where armies require a fleet first and forts require an army first. Battles are fought by the players simply choosing an attack or a defend card - if all attack they win but if one defend, only the defender wins, and if all defend they lose. Enemy actions, finally, are simulated by choosing an enemy card and if adjacent, the enemies attacks on those fronts. Yet, all those game mechanisms have interesting cooperation/competition balances.
A produced good may be used in short term (as a new subject) or in long term (to build).
A build usually requires players to cooperate to be completed.
Armies need fleets to be placed but once placed, they deny the fleets the production and the similar applies for forts and armies.
The prisoner dilemma-style battle system encourages players to cooperate but also gives an incentive not to cooperate.
The enemy simulation allows players to steer enemies towards opponents with the risk that enemies spread out of control.
Titles are required to win but requires that investments are forsaken and must also be defended, thus acting as stop-the-leader mechanism.
As this wasn't enough, the testing revealed another unintended mechanism: the balance between
subjects, goods and gold. The decision to use the same unit for all three was initially a component
decision (it was cheaper!) but turned out surprisingly well. A player throwing out subjects on the
board will face "inflation" as he or she doesn't have enough units left to collect the production or
pay for the investments. This also led to the specialized one-good-provinces instead of the mixed
provinces, forcing the players to move from province to province in search for the right mix of resources
and moving the game away from the static placement game to a dynamic manoeuvre game. Perhaps I subconsciously thought of
with its famous balance between stock and treasury?
Another "component mechanism" appeared when I converted the wooden units to the new cardboard chits
offered by The Gamecrafter. Since they were bigger,
I couldn't fit the old matrix-style build decks, where there were squares for several fleets/armies/forts
and several players. They had led to individual builds, as the first player to build also claimed the
leadership, instead of the cooperative builds I wanted. The new mechanism changed this in two ways:
Fleets/armies/forts builds removed the first-player leadership in favor of a
a rotating leadership, where the leftmost unit is the leader one turn and then switch places the next.
This worked thanks to the specialized provinces, since all farm circles now generate the same kind of
unit and the relative positioning within a province can be used for other game purposes. This also
encouraged other players to join a build since all will get to lead the fleet/army/fort eventually.
Title builds removed the many individual builds in favor of one cooperative build. Now titles are
awarded when the total goods reach a level, but only to the player contributing with most goods. This
added a new cooperation/competition dimension to the simple race mechanism used before.
I guess the conclusion is that game creativity has many different sources and that the important
thing is to dare trying out new paths.
All those mechanisms give a game with plenty of strategic options and players constantly seeking for the right time and place to abandon their co-players. Is it too much? Some reviewers think so while others are intrigued by the game. I guess it depends on player style but among my three complex game, Mare Balticum beats both Nova Suecia and Bellum se ipsum alet.
19 hexagonal maps featuring provinces around the Baltic Sea
5 noble line cards; coat of arms on front and Baltic Sea map on back
3 Chancellor cards; 1 for round 1-2, 1 for round 3-4 and one for round 5
6 battle cards; 3 marked attack and 3 marked defend
4 title cards; Admiral, Constable, Steward and Treasurer
24 red units for the Banér line
24 yellow units for the Fleming line
24 blue units for the Bielke line
24 white units cylinder units for the De la Gardie line
24 black units for the Brahe line
3 purple units for the King (6 players only)
27 gray units for the enemy powers
1. Playing Time
Mare Balticum is quickly set up and spans over fifteen game turns only. The player actions are swift, keeping the waiting time down. It does include elements of analysis and negotiation but since your long-term strategy has to take into account your opponents' actions, intuition is often more important than logic. The estimated playing time is 15 minutes per player or 45-75 minutes for a 3-5 player game.
2. Simple Rules
The game turns consists of five main phases: production, building, investment, battle and enemy actions, - each with its distinct tasks and challenges. In production, you simply place units on the game board where you already have units. In building, you place fleets, armies and forts that have enough units on the board. In investment, you use units to build additional fleets, armies and forts. Battles are fought by drawing and comparing cards and so are enemies' actions determined. Moreover, since the players only have one unit in the first game turn the game is very suitable for learn-as-you-go. To understand the outcome of your simple decisions is of course less simple but that's another story.
3. Few Choices
The choices in Mare Balticum are few and limited. Do I go for the short-term production strategy or the long-term investment? Where do I place a fleet, army or fort to protect my interests and disturb other players' interests? Should I attack in a battle for the benefit of all players or retreat and try to reap the benefits myself? Where do I want the enemy to act next? That's about the decisions you have to take. The close interdependency between you and the other players gives you enough to think about without having to resort to complex rules.
Uncertainty has two advantages: you cannot plan everything in detail and there will always be surprises waiting for you. However, it must be balanced towards not having any control at all. In Mare Balticum, the uncertainty stems from the other players' decisions. If you choose to build a fleet,your success depends not only on other players supporting you but also on other players not destroying the trade by starting a war. If you end up in a battle, the success of an attack or a retreat depends on what the other players do. In worst case, the players' attempts to reap own benefits may only benefit the enemy and bring loss to everybody!
5. No Player Elimination
In Mare Balticum, the players are always equally strong, as measured by the number of units they control. Successful players will have to spend their units not only to acquire titles but also defend them, giving less successful players a chance to play on equal terms and catch up. In addition, the players need each other to succeed. But can they trust each other to bear their parts of the burden or will they try a free-rider strategy? It's all about psychology.
6. Pacific Game
Just like in real politics, trade conflicts may lead to war. However, players do not compete by waging war agaisnt each other (they actually fight the war together) but rather by cooperating for the common good. The competition comes from putting as little as possible into the common good.
7. Player Interaction
The player interaction in Nova Suecia is subtle and indirect. Each action is individual but it the sum of the actions that count. The sum of the players' investments determine if a fleet, army or fort is built. The sum of the players' tactics determine the outcome of a battle. The sum of the players' choices determines the enemies' next steps.
8. Few Pieces
The players have only one set of pieces in the games; representing subjects, goods and gold depending on how they are placed. The number of pieces is limited and once placed, on the game board, most of them are fixed, leaving only a few to actually be moved around.
9. Visual Interest
In the design, I have balanced between clarity (the game board is basically a half cirlce with inner and outer rims) and authenticity (the Baltic Sea trade and army routes were far more complex). When possible, I have added interest through the theme and let the colorful provinces and characteristics of the past do the job for me. Please read more about the theme to get to know know the nobles and political conditions of the Swedish Empire.
As mentioned above, theme is important in Mare Balticum. The game mechanics could easily have been applied in another setting but I really enjoy finding those small details that fit into the game and contribute to an aura of authenticity. Since ship material really was traded from Russia, I put cloth circles there. Since battles could be determined by one part switching side, I used it as an argument for prisoners' dilema battles. Nevertheless, I am far from covering all the politcal and economical challenges but why let facts obscure art?
11. No Luck
No dice. Cards are drawn hidden from other players but each players chooses his or her own cards. If you lose, you can certainly not blame bad luck.
12. Positive Scoring
The game does have a military aspect but the the player fight on the same side. If successful, they will end with a greater kingdom that they started with. However, the opposite may also be true - if they fail the entire kingdom will fall. On the other hand, that is what really happened. It is up to the players to prevent the history from repeating itself.