Another area of the game that I've been working on since my vacation playtest is working through the troubles and tribulations related to research and development activities in the game, especially as I looked back as what worked and what didn't in First Edition (and Second Edition) and compared that to our stated goals for this redesign of the Victory by Any Means core rules.
We've already experimented with a number of different rules concepts for research over the last two years, some of which showed promise but ultimately flamed out when we encountered a new obstacle or problem that made it untenable for us to continue down that path.
This particular post is meant as a kind of discussion to review may current thoughts on this subject and define my current concepts for how this should play out.
I think internally we're pretty happy with the current research and development mechanic where you pay a percentage of your total system income (10%) to conduct research. This R&D fee then allows you to roll a d10 and add the die result to your tech investment pool. You then automatically earn a tech advance as soon as your total tech investment is equal to or greater than your tech advancement cost.
This model keeps the idea of consistent per-turn R&D costs that we liked from First Edition, and retains a random factor in that you never know quite WHEN you will earn a tech advancement but you can have a good sense for how far away you are from the advance based on your current tech investment total.
Importantly for me, this also disassociates tech investment from economic points. Historically this has been a 1:1 relationship, which devalued the impact and importance of earning tech investment from other sources. Now tech investment can be more important as a secondary "currency" in the game that can be earned from certain sources, such as alien ruins.
So if we have a good sense for how we are earning tech investment and how that relates to tech advancement, the missing piece of the puzzle is what the actual effects of tech advancement are -- a pretty big deal, obviously!
This is where most of the debate about tech in Victory by Any Means is centered right now. We had some good discussions about this in the Admiralty in July prior to my vacation, but ultimately this ends up coming down to being a design decision with wider implications that I'm still struggling to come to terms with.
My most recent internal playtest used a tech advancement model where the only thing being researched was tech level increases, with those occurring about every 2 years (24 turns in that case). The rest of the player's efforts were then focused on prototyping new unit classes at their current tech level using the classic Prototyping rules.
The advantages to this system is that it allowed me to design new ships as needed, but at great cost and with a high degree of uncertainty as to when (or if) the new ships would be completed.
The disadvantages to this approach largely came from that sense of uncertainty. You could easily end up throwing large amounts of economic points down a rabbit hole trying to correct issues in a terminally problematic hull. I addressed this problem by applying a cumulative +1 DRM bonus to subsequent Prototyping rolls for each previous failed attempt.
I still had concerns about how players would interact with tech advancement if the benefits were always 2-3 years out, however. Each tech level was adding +10% ability points (AP) to the designs, so it was definitely a good "carrot" at the end of the proverbial stick, but I could see situations where a player might decide that the R&D costs would be better spent expanding the existing fleet rather than funding new research.
The other problem you run into with this approach is that it is harder to setup new empires during an existing game because you have to figure out exactly what they might have built at their current and previous tech levels, which is a bit problematic. This was always an issue for me in my old First Edition games, too, and something which often would cause a campaign to come to a screeching halt as I had to stop and setup the new empire and lose all of my built up steam.
In this regard, the classic Tech Year and In Service Date (ISD) system works more cleanly. It is easy to look at a pre-generated force list and find which unit classes a new empire has available based on its ISD. Instead of rolling for starting tech level when an empire is discovered you can instead roll to find the offset of their starting tech year and adjust accordingly. Tech years are also much cleaner to work with if you're playing historical scenarios.
That leaves us with two competing concepts for technology (freeform versus historical).
My current mode of thinking is that our best option is to adopt a HYBRID approach. We keep the concept of tech year and ISDs for the purposes of game setup, but then from there shift to the tech level advancement and freeform construction rules.
For example, we are starting a new campaign and decide to start at tech year 2217. Each player looks at the force list for their chosen empire and they start with the ship classes on their force list that have ISDs less than or equal to that tech year. Their current tech level is then defined by the most advanced ship they have available. Then once the game starts everyone works under the freeform rules where they can design whatever ships they want at their current tech level, and their R&D efforts are focused entirely on improving their tech level.
The alternative to the above is to keep the tech years as the basic rules, with tech advances balanced to be earned every year, and then move the freeform research to the optional rules. Same basic effect, but it would save new players from having to design new ships. This would be very much the classic VBAM research experience.
In either case, if we run into a new empire in game year 2219 then we would roll to see how advanced they are, with that empire having a starting tech year that is +-5 years from the current year. We would then look on that empire's force list to see what it has available and purchase its starting forces appropriately.
This approach is fairly important for VBAM as a commercial enterprise, as it makes new alien empire packs with abilities and force lists more valuable, and gives us something to sell that can help generate income to pay for other larger projects later on down the road. Crass commercialism rears its ugly head once again, I know, but it is something that I have to keep in mind.
As a player, I do like having the ability to design new units myself and have that be an integral part of the game. There have been too many times I've played an empire that didn't have a particular ship type available that I needed, be that a Scout or Supply ship. Being able to address those gaps in your order of battle is important.
The biggest problem I ran into historically with this in previous iterations of the tech rules (mostly during Second Edition's development) is that they made it too easy for a player to completely reconfigure their fleet away from "historical" lines. A good pop culture example would be the Romulans giving up cloaking devices to build nothing but Battlestars. This was exacerbated by the fact that unless you played with the custom alien empire rules a faction's force list was the only real definition they had in the game. Integrating empire abilities into the base game helps overcome this concern.
If we accept the hybrid approach for the moment, the issue then becomes the rate of tech advancement and how that is tied to the tech years. These may seem on their face to be two separate issues, but really they are linked together because the tech advancement cost to advance from one tech level to the next should be roughly the same whether you are leap frogging from one tech level to the next or researching a tech year at a time.
I have a feeling that the only way to solve this problem is through repeated playtesting. We can stick with a 2-3 year cycle for tech level advancement and see what happens, and then adjust from there accordingly. Based on my experience with the previous tech years, I think I would be most comfortable if we covered about 5 tech levels from the start to the end of the force lists. For First Edition that would mean one tech level for every 3 years, while for Second Edition it would be about one tech level for every 5 years. We could split the difference and say 4 years per tech level, too.
In any event, the trick will be to set our tech advancement costs using the following formula:
(Campaign Year Length x 5) x Tech Years Required
Therefore is our campaign year is 10 turns long and we want 4 years between tech levels we then get a tech advancement cost of 10 x 5 x 4 = 200. Meanwhile, if our campaign year is 12 turns long and we want a tech advance every 3 years it becomes 12 x 5 x 3 = 180.
Note that I am avoiding variable tech advancement costs based on tech level because you are already running into diminishing returns as you research without also making the time and cost increase for no good reason. Those first few tech levels are going to free up a lot more APs proportionally compared to the later advances!
That's the gist of where I'm headed for technology and research in the game. It opens the game up compared to previous editions, allowing for more freedom of research and unit design, but retains enough of the VBAM "roots" to support historical tech progression for scenarios where that makes sense.