Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Space Empires 4x: Notes on Teaching the Game

Being the guy that normally wants to play a moldy old game from the early eighties if I can get the chance, it really is nice to own the hot new shiny for once. People that will not touch a single game in my collection will agree to play Space Empires 4X. When they sit down to game with me, I want those first sessions to make a good impression… but even teaching a game that I know well has its pitfalls.

One thing that I had heard a guy at PrezCon say had tripped people up had to do with the ship yards. First off, don’t put all four of your starting shipyard counters at your home world! (You need to be able to build some further out, don’tcha know.) Put just the first ship yard counter out at the beginning and put a “number 4” marker underneath it. Next, note that those four ship yards can produce up to four hull points of ships per economic phase. If you need to produce war ships there, then you can (for example) produce four destroyers, or two cruisers, or some other combination. (Don’t forget to increase your ship size technology before trying that, though!) Also note that there are two ways to increase the output of those yards. One is to buy more ship yards– you can increase that marker to five or even six. You could alternately increase your ship yard technology: at level two they’ll produce half again as many hull points… and at level three they produce double. Finally, you might think that these ship yards are wimpy, but they are not completely helpless. The four of them can pack a significant amount of firepower, especially if they have the benefit of the fleet size bonus.

Blue is about to harass Yellow with his scouts.

Those rules about ship yards aren’t that complicated, but it seems like the sort of thing you might need to explain more than once. People will pay attention to just what they need to start the exploration phase and then ask about them again later in the game when the situation is different. That’s one thing, but slightly more elaborate rules can be an entirely different matter. Every one nods their heads. You repeat yourself, and tell everyone that they will botch it later no matter how many times you say it. Later on… sure enough, somebody plays it totally wrong anyway. To add insult to injury, people will sometimes accuse you of not explaining the rule in the first place!

Green is about to get another lesson on the base construction rules.

That’s what the base construction rule is like. People will send a colony ship out into the neutral zone and land it on a barren world. In the very next purchasing phase, they will want get a base and a ship yard for that world. Of course, they can’t do that because the colony ship doesn’t become an actual colony until the “Increase Colonies” step is played. Even if they understand this (and assuming the colony survives a complete turn), you will also have to remind them that they can only build one ship yard unit there in each purchasing phase. Developing a colony out in the frontier takes time!

After demonstrating asteroid combat, Yellow heads into Green’s territory to score his third short game victory point.

Another rule of that sort is the special combat conditions that are in effect in the asteroid and nebula hexes. Most people will get that their fast ships will have to stop before entering one of those hexes… and then stop again after going into it. It can take three full movement turns just to get to the other side! But if you explain the combat rules when they’ve never played before, their eyes will glaze over. They’re likely to move ships into asteroid fields or nebula and then get mauled when someone that knew to invest in additional levels of tactics technology mugs them there.

So far, it looks like those are the thorniest rules in the game from a teaching and learning stand point. But even assuming everyone gets all the rules down pat during the first pass, there’s still the phenomenon of “the obvious move that seems good but is actually pretty useless but you can’t know that really until you play an entire game all the way through.”

In the two games I’ve played so far, I have seen people send a completely unsupported fleet to an opponent’s home world. Usually it’s just two ships of the largest sort that they can produce. In the first place, these ships are neutralized if they are ever outnumbered two to one. Secondly, it can take them effectively forever to reduce a colony-5 down to nothing– and home worlds would take two “forevers” to destroy! Their only saving grace is that they might be able to retreat before being completely wiped out. So here’s my free Space Empires 4X tactic: if you want your large ships to be effective, be sure to support them with lots of destroyers. In the game pictured here– my second session– my yellow fleet consisted of two battlecruisers, one cruiser, five destroyers, and one scout… most of it at Attack+1, Defense+1, Tactics+2. It was overwhelming to the new players that were expecting a couple of large ships to be fearsome by themselves.

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7 responses to “Space Empires 4x: Notes on Teaching the Game

  1. RogerBW March 19, 2013 at 6:29 am

    A trick I’ve used a few times is to rewrite the rules into a document of my own; that way I can fix layout problems so that all the rules for the same thing are in the same place, and I can be sure I’ve read and understood everything since I needed to do so to re-phrase it.

    • jeffro March 19, 2013 at 6:34 am

      I wouldn’t go that far unless I was going to extensively house-rule it– ie, Traveller, but with the best bits of all the editions knit together. (Or anybody’s OD&D game.)

      The rules for Space Empires really are good. A single page with a visual of what you put down on the board for set up… plus an some example moves would be sufficient. (Also… the sample combat uses the Advanced rules, I think– a simpler combat that would be typical in a multi-player short game would be good to have as well.)

  2. Jason Packer March 22, 2013 at 10:20 am

    Most folks who want to teach a new boardgame are quick to teach the rules, but tend to skimp on the strategy and tactics discussions. It’s not just “you forgot how long it would take to create a colony” but also “as cool as that idea is in the short term, you’re going to regret it later.”

    • RogerBW March 22, 2013 at 11:24 am

      Very much agreed – it’s something I try to do when I’m demonstrating games as a MIB, taking every opportunity to describe what I’m doing not just in basic rules but in terms of the tactics that I’m using.

      • Jason Packer March 22, 2013 at 12:59 pm

        My canonical example of this is Star Fleet Battles – my absolute favorite space combat simulation – and I’m torn there. Do you teach the new guy about “saber dancing” versus “knife fighting” because they’re the styles that work well with the technology they’re given, or let them have the joy of coming up with a winning strategy on their own?

      • jeffro March 22, 2013 at 1:07 pm

        Star Fleet Battles. It’s a struggle to teach. You can blow someone up several times in a row while you explain why they are dying and then watch them get better slowly. Then… they say that they aren’t learning anything– so you let them fight j. random new guy that has not had the coaching. They will murder the new guy and then still say that they don’t know anything.

        I don’t think I teach tactics pre se… but I do say, “you want X, so I am going to try to do Y.”

  3. Pingback: Design Workshop: Is Game Blogging Good Preparation for Game Design? | Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

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