Droids, Midichlorians, and Orcs: Dealing with problematic canon

If you run an RPG, whether it’s a licensed property or not, there are bound to be elements of the canon that you don’t like or disagree with. In general, my recommendation is to suck it up and stick to the canon, if for no other reason than just not to confuse your players. Every so often, though, you run into a truly a gigantic issue that compels some sort of resolution.

I ran into this in my Star Wars: Age of Rebellion game. I had a player who had chosen a droid PC with “Droid Rights” as her motivation. This is cool because it’s a theme the movies raise but don’t explore: droids obviously have some degree of sentience, but are treated as property, which seems wrong. As I started playing with the idea of droid sentience in my own arc, I came across the long-standing rules prohibition against Force-sensitive droids in Star Wars games and wondered why this should be, exactly. If a droid should achieve a degree of sentience comparable with humans somehow – as is generally assumed for droid player characters in these games – why couldn’t they access the Force? The Force is a spiritual energy, a reflection of the soul made manifest, and who are we to say that biological beings have souls but self-aware droids don’t? And what possible narrative purpose could it serve to do so?

The ostensible reason of course is the biggest WTF moment in Star Wars movies: midichlorians. Those symbiotic organisms that, according to Qui-Gon Jinn in The Phantom Menace, serve as receptors for the Force. Organic beings have them. Cyborgs have them. Droids don’t. Possibly the Horta doesn’t either, I’m guessing.

I think the introduction of midichlorians broke a lot of Star Wars fans, and had them questioning George Lucas’ sanity and/or intelligence. I admit I had a similar reaction, but my bias was that I knew that Lucas was a smart guy. He had, after all, written and made the original trilogy. The difference between Lucas and J J Abrams is that when Lucas does things, he does them for reasons that make sense. There was probably a reason for the midichlorians, just not one that was apparent to me at the time.

My personal understanding of that reason didn’t come into focus until a few years after Revenge of the Sith came out, and they had become just a small weird background element in the larger trilogy. It went like this: the very first real scene of the trilogy, with Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan on the Trade Federation ship, seems quite revealing to me. It starts with a callback to the original trilogy (Obi-Wan saying he has a bad feeling about this), but then immediately stakes out some new territory. Obi-Wan talks about how Yoda has told him he should be mindful of the future, something that Episode V Yoda would probably warn against. Qui-Gon then tells Obi-Wan to be mindful not of the “Force”, but of the “Living Force”, an expression we haven’t heard before. This seems to be staking out a position: how the Jedi understand the Force was different in the past, and this is not exactly the same Yoda we see later. I remember when I watched that scene the first time, it clearly signaled to me that things are going to be different.

This then feeds into questions about the reliability of Qui-Gon and his idea of the “Living Force”. He’s often at odds with the Jedi Council and Jedi orthodoxy. We’ll learn later that he was Count Dooku’s padawan. When he talks about the prophecy that Anakin is supposed to be fulfilling, the rest of the council appears skeptical. His talk of midichlorians doesn’t sway the Jedi Council when he’s trying to get Anakin trained. Even Obi-Wan senses the danger Anakin presents which Qui-Gon seems blind to, and – given how things turn out – insisting on training Anakin may not have been the best call. It’s entirely possible that Qui-Gon is not part of the Jedi mainstream and his understanding of the Living Force and  midichlorians is not, in fact, widely shared. Midichlorians clearly exist, and can be measured – the Council seems to acknowledge this, at least – but it’s possible that not everyone agrees about their function.

Then throw in the fact that after Qui-Gon’s death, nobody brings up midichlorians again. The films tell us several times, mainly in Attack of the Clones, that the state of Jedi knowledge and scholarship is calcified. The Jedi Council, over the course of the films, reveals itself to be a terrible, ineffective organization. All this adds up, for me, to the idea that the Jedi in the timeframe of the prequels may not really have known what they were doing – the results speak for themselves on that count – and that midichlorians were simply a quirk of Qui-Gon’s philosophy of the Living Force, and one that you don’t need to worry about in your games.

The problem, of course, is that this is not actually the correct interpretation, according to George Lucas (bearing in mind that creators are surprisingly often wrong about their own works). I had read a lot of the background history of the creation of the prequels, but never remembered hearing or reading anything that explained Lucas’ thinking behind the midichlorians. In doing background for this piece, I remembered I hadn’t listened to Lucas’ commentary tracks on the prequels in a long time, so I popped in The Phantom Menace and checked out the scenes where midichlorians are mentioned. Lo and behold, there it is, behind the scene where Qui-Gon draws Anakin’s blood to test. And the answer is inextricably tied up with the original sin of the classic trilogy – the single fact that makes Star Wars so hard to game and explains why, even though I respect the classic trilogy more, I actually find it easier as a whole to engage with the people in the prequels.

In the classic trilogy, it is established there is sort of a royal family of the Force, the Skywalkers. They are far more sensitive to the Force than anyone else, to the point that Luke can use his native talent to accomplish almost miraculous feats (blocking blaster bolts with his lightsaber while blindfolded) with only the most minimal training while virtually everyone else remains Force-blind. In The Empire Strikes Back, it’s established by Yoda that, amongst the trillions upon trillions of beings in the galaxy, there is literally nobody who is not a descendant of Skywalker who can be trained to defeat Darth Vader – and Vader, as a reconstructed cyborg, has only a fraction of the power he had as Anakin Skywalker.

George Lucas felt this needed some explaining – which it does – and so he introduced midichlorians in a way that he thought would work, and mesh with the themes of Episode I. Midichlorians are described only vaguely, no actual mechanism is ever proposed, and the symbiotic relationship plays into the themes of Star Wars. But midichlorians are wholly unsatisfactory as an explanation because the thing they have to explain is wholly unsatisfactory – that some people have vastly greater potential based solely on genetics. Without that fact you you can’t have big chunks of the original trilogy. Maybe you can live with the galaxy as the playground of the Skywalkers, but once you expand the story into the prequels – or onto your gaming table – you kind of need to deal with it somehow.

To the credit of the prequels, a lot less is made of Anakin’s genes than is made of Luke’s in the originals. Luke ultimately has to face Vader because it is his “destiny” – The Empire Strikes Back’s favorite word. Anakin’s path is, to me, more nuanced and interesting: he makes his own choices, but is also influenced by his situation and by the people around him. His destiny is his to make, but but also for others to influence; the fact that he may or may not be “the chosen one” is not nearly as significant as who he is and who the people around him are. Another intriguing fact that the prequels introduce is that the fact that the Sith don’t pass on their powers by heredity, apparently. They “adopt” their apprentices from the best available candidates. While the Sith are unpleasant, they do a pretty good job of passing on power from generation to generation. Did I mention that Qui-Gon Jinn was Count Dooku’s padawan, before he became Darth Tyranus?

So what is the Star Wars game master to make of all this? One answer is simply to run a campaign without the Force, which is sort of the route taken by Star Wars: Edge of the Empire. This is fine as far as it goes, but the Force is such a central part of the Star Wars mythology it’s hard to ignore forever. In order to get best results – even if you’re going to draw solely on material from the classic trilogy – you need to wrestle with these issues and figure out what you think of them.

The facts established by the classic trilogy – the importance of your parents to your destiny – are definitely not working for me. Neither, obviously, is the fact that your midichlorian levels dictate your Force potential, since the latter explains the former.

Even if you hate the prequels, the good news is that they provide more than enough cover to simply discard the whole lot of it. I feel there is enough to make the case that Qui-Gon, while right about many things, was wrong about midichlorians. And if that’s true, it’s only a very small step to also argue that Obi-Wan and Yoda were wrong when they believed only Anakin’s children had the Force potential to overcome him and the Emperor. In the context of the classic trilogy, we have no reason to believe that Yoda is anything other than he appears to be, the wise mentor who we have no reason to doubt. But throw in the prequels, and now Yoda was a key member of the Jedi Council that so abjectly failed the first time; a person who feels the choices he made were so wrong that in at least one important case, he strongly councils Luke to do the exact opposite of what he did under the same circumstances. Obi-Wan was a product of the last, failing generation of Jedi and as Anakin’s former master, he could easily be too emotionally involved in this case. He’s also got a track record of playing a little fast and loose with facts. The power of the Empire at this point would have made finding and training another candidate difficult in any event, so the reason Luke and Leia were their last hopes may, in truth, have owed much more to practicalities than genetics.

To be fair to Lucas, he obviously wrestles with these contradictions, which have deep roots and you could probably get a Master’s thesis out of. There are plenty of times in The Empire Strikes Back where we don’t particularly believe Luke is special, and Yoda gives the impression that more or less anyone could be a Jedi, with the right discipline and training. But the core of the drama in Empire and Jedi is the father-son dynamic (with the daughter shorted, as usual), and that drives other elements of the story. This dynamic is unlikely to be something you want to replicate in your game, and now the prequels give you enough ammunition to completely jettison the single most problematic aspect of the Star Wars canon – Force power that is innate and primarily heritable – and I think you should. Not only does it make for better gaming, it also makes the Star Wars universe more morally just. It’s Star Wars, from the vantage point of Ahsoka Tano – for me, the most relatable Jedi in the franchise.

So even though it’s apparently not what Lucas intended, I’ve become attached to my interpretation of midichlorians: that they are a wrong idea that fell out of fashion, and furthermore that the idea that receptivity to the Force is measurable and heritable is the product of the failing generations of the Jedi, which the prequels show as conflicted, reactionary, and ultimately not up to the challenge they faced.

The Force model I’ve gone with in my game, following my interpretation of the movies, is that being able to use the Force is a skill, just a very difficult one. I think of it as analogous to the skill required to play classical music at a very high level: it’s extremely difficult to master, some people clearly have an aptitude for it, but most anyone can do it if they have the concentration, discipline, and a good mentor. Being from a family of classical musicians clearly helps, but pre-eminent performers surprisingly often emerge from families with no notable musical history (Hilary Hahn, Sharon Kam). Genetics make a difference – Yuja Wang’s long fingers or Paganini’s freakishly flexible joints are clearly assets (in the case of Paganini, an asset with a high cost) – but not as much as you might think. Even for those with aptitude, it’s a lot of work. Without situational or genetic advantages you may never become the best in the world, but with commitment and the right training and barring disability you can usually become very, very good.

We run into a similar, although possibly less problematic, question when gaming Tolkien: where exactly did the orcs come from, and why are they apparently all evil? Somewhat similarly to midichlorians, orcs are creatures that the story Tolkien is telling requires, but which his philosophy cannot explain. Since in fiction the requirements of story trump the requirements of logic, orcs exist; troublesome questions remain. Within the context of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, you don’t need to worry about it too much, but once you write a prequel (The Silmarillion) or design an RPG arc, the question may become more urgent. In Tolkien’s worldview, evil can only corrupt, not create; so in the version of the Silmarillion that Christopher Tolkien published, Melkor capture some Elves and corrupt them into orcs (it’s not clear that Tolkien himself thought this was the answer to the conundrum). But this just doesn’t make a lot of sense and raises more questions than it answers. The problem is that, much like George Lucas, Tolkien is trying to weave modern values into a medieval story structure, and there ends up being conflicts. Those conflicts are, in fact, often what brings life to the stories and give them depth. Every so often, though, they create problems for those of us who come later.

The problems here are easier to resolve simply because The Silmarillion was published posthumously and so I’ve never considered it truly “canon” in the Tolkien universe, at least not to the same degree as the stories Tolkien actually published himself during his lifetime. So I can just discard the orc’s origin story as given in The Silmarillion (which somewhat surprisingly make it into Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Rings adaptation), and simply choose in favor Tolkien’s dominant modern values: like Gollum, the orcs are not irredeemably evil, they are just slaves to Sauron’s will. Knowing their origin story then becomes unnecessary or a subject of speculation, and not a glaring inconsistency in the universe. Having made this decision, as storytellers themes open up to us and we can use orcs more intelligently as adversaries and not simply as mindless cannon fodder which the players are free to wantonly kill without compunction.

I think my biggest take-away from this whole run-around on the issue of droids and the Force was the importance of spending some time thinking about these things. If there are points of inconsistency or contradiction, you don’t have to tap-dance around them, you can make a philosophical call that is supportable and consistent with the setting and not worry about supporting all possible interpretations, or even supporting things that the artist said at one time which may, in fact, have been wrong! When these questions arise, coming to your own conclusions based on your own values, finding a way to make it clear to your players, and sticking with them will make your own creations better.

For the record: in my Star Wars games, intelligent droids will be able to access the Force.

Star Wars: Age of Rebellion – A Deep Dive on Dice Probabilities

A little while ago, I gave Star Wars: Edge of the Empire a reasonably positive review. After another year of playing the game, it’s time to check in again see how it’s faring, and to try to pass along some playing tips for dealing with some of the game’s quirks. If you haven’t played Star Wars: Edge of the Empire or Age of Rebellion (they’re exactly the same game system), you might want to catch up by reading that review – this will go pretty deep into the game’s probabilities and what they mean for actual play.

The dice in Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, image courtesy FFG. Click for product page.

The central, most intriguing, and most opaque idea in the game is the set of customized dice that are used to form dice pools for task resolution. At their most basic, they are simple and elegant: just add positive ability (green 8-sided) and proficiency (yellow 12-sided) dice for your level of skill, negative purple 8-sided difficulty dice for the difficulty level negative red 12-siders for reasons, and then even some more dice (positive blue boosts and negative black  setbacks, both 6-siders) for situational modifiers (cover, time pressure, assistance from an ally), grab them all, and roll them. Net out success and failure icons, and advantage and threat icons. What you’ve got left is the result. If you end up with at least one success, you succeed. Remaining threat or advantage may give an additional bonus or penalty. It’s a pretty cool idea and rolling lots of dice is fun. However, as I played more, I kept noticing unexpected quirks in the results.

The big thing was that critical hits (which generally require a successful combat check with three advantages) seemed exceptionally rare, and even weapons special powers were hard to activate (they generally require successful check with two advantages). A little bit of analysis of the dice and this made sense. The dice faces never have more than two symbols and rarely show both success and advantage. Good dice only have good faces, and bad dice only have bad faces. So canceling out all the failures and all the threats while having surplus successes and advantages is obviously rare. While there are in theory four different possible “quadrants” the result of a dice roll could fall into (success or failure with advantage or threat), in practice two of them (success with threat and failure with advantage) are predominant, with critical success and critical failure seeming quite rare unless you have a big imbalance between good and bad dice in the pool.

Another odd thing was that it seemed like having high characteristics (Agility, Perception, Brawn, etc.) was a much bigger deal than actually having ranks in skills. A skilled character with a lower characteristic (so, say, a character with Piloting 2 and Agility 2) did not seem to do as well as a character with a slightly higher characteristic (so, no Piloting skill but Agility 3).

Then finally, because nobody really had any idea what the magnitude of the effects of adding various dice were, it made it hard to know what to do with the Destiny Pool, or how to rate the importance of boost and setback dice, or how to wisely spend advantages in combat. The rules seemed to imply that a boost/setback die was a lesser effect while upgrading a die (for example, turning green ability die into a yellow proficiency die) was a bigger deal. But is this really true? It didn’t feel like it.

Now, a little bit (or even a lot) of opacity in the odds is not a bad thing. In fact, a major appeal of the Star Wars system is that dice pools are so intuitive to construct but the probability curves they produce are so complicated as to be essentially incalculable.  That said, we still need to understand some basic things to play the game well. And the only way to get there seemed to be to run some Monte Carlo simulations and see what the numbers looked like. So that’s what I did. Knowing these details definitely improved my game, but they also raised some real questions about whether the designer understood how the dice pool actually works in practice, and if there are fundamental aspects of the game system that need to be re-calibrated.

The dice pool is extremely flexible and it can generate a huge range of probability curves. So I focused on a just few questions: how common are critical successes? What are the quantitative impacts on success and critical success of adding the various different dice to the pool? How big a deal are the challenge dice? To do this, I looked primarily at a few common cases:

  • A difficulty 2 check, which is a typical ranged combat check at medium range or when shooting at a similarly-sized ship
  • A check made by a moderately-skilled entry-level character, with two yellow and one green dice
  • A highly skilled character rolling one green and 3 yellow dice

For a look at a sampling of the numbers generated, you can check out this Google sheet. I’ve focussed on positive results, because they get the most attention from the system. The SUC+2 or SUC+3 columns give the percent chance of a successful check with at least that many advantages. I didn’t go deep, running stats for 2 or 3 or more boost, setback, or challenge dice, but this should give you a feel for how they work. You could really go crazy with the data, but the visualization problems get out of hand very quickly. Also, you need to run a surprisingly large number of iterations to get the results to converge. The numbers for the very large dice pools are not exact.

First a few general observations:

  • If you’re trying to activate weapon properties or score critical hits which require a success with +2 or +3 advantages, basically forget about it unless you have a very large dice advantage. The odds of a less-experienced character with good skill (a dice pool of 1g+2y) activating her twin-linked cannons on a typical shot (difficulty 2p) are only 9%. The odds of a crit are only 2%. A ridiculously skilled gunner on that same shot (5y) still only gets +2 advantages half the time, and a crit 30% of the time (remember a crit is generally not “you’re dead”, or even double damage, but something like reducing the target’s speed by 1 or removing a defense die). Also: reducing your crit rating is a really big deal. A vibrosword with a mono-molecular, serrated edge is extremely nasty (vicious 2, crit 1). Very nearly as good as a lightsaber.
  • Quantity of dice is better than quality of dice. In virtually every case, your odds of success with N green dice are better than with N-1 yellow dice. For Piloting checks, someone with Agility 3 and skill has worse odds than someone with Agility 5 and no training until the former has trained up to 5 ranks in Piloting. There are minor exceptions when a skill level is high and characteristic ratings are only different by 1, but they are quite small. A boost die has a bigger impact than a die upgrade, and it can significantly increase your chances of success and critical success.
  • In the same vein, upgrading a purple difficulty die to a red challenge dice just isn’t that big a deal. Outside of the triumph and despair symbols (see next), the effects of the yellow and red dice on your chances of success vs failure or advantage vs threat are negligible (they help; just not a lot). In most situations a challenge die is about a 5 percentage point hit on your chances of success, with minimal impact on your chances of critical successes (again, outside of despair, which I’m getting to). Adding a setback die is significantly more impactful than upgrading a check, in that it has a somewhat greater negative impact on your chances of success, and a much nastier hit to your chances of critical success (roughly halving them in the 1g+2y vs. 2p case).
  • By far the most important impact of the proficiency (yellow) and challenge (red) dice are the 1:12 chance for a triumph or despair.  The 1g+2y shot vs. 2p has only a 3% chance of a critical, but it has a 12% chance of a success + triumph. For anything that requires three or more advantages to activate,  triumphs are the way to go. Even when you are enormously skilled and the task is easy, you are still more likely to get triumphs than 3 advantages. The overall impact of the challenge dice on the game (and so the despair symbol) is less pronounced simply because there aren’t very many of them flying around. You’ll occasionally get them through the GM spending Destiny, and a Nemesis’ Adversary talent; that’s about it.
  • The bias for failure + advantage and success + threat is very noticeable when the pool is balanced (equal green and purple dice). Due to the extra threat and missing failure symbols on the purple dice (compared to the green dice), until you have a big dice imbalance success with threat tends to dominate the nontrivial results, with failure plus advantage coming next, and then failure plus threat and success plus advantage only filling up as the dice become overwhelming in one direction or the other.

Some of this makes sense, some of it is decidedly odd.

I am definitely not a fan of how it makes levels of skill relatively unimportant. You might think 3 ranks of Piloting gives you some niche protection in that area; but it does not, someone with 4 Agility is basically as good as you. High characteristics are a big deal, and spending any of your initial XP on anything other than characteristics doesn’t make a ton of sense, from a pure min-maxing perspective. This is not great from a “making characters interesting” perspective.

The flipside of the relative weakness of skills is the imbalance in the Destiny Pool. For the GM, spending a dark side Destiny Point to upgrade the difficulty of a skill check just doesn’t do a lot – it’s usually about a 5% hit, the equivalent of a -1 in a d20-based system, with a small (8%) chance of a despair symbol. Barely worth the effort. The FATE-like “Luck and Deus Ex Machina” function of the Destiny Pool is great and I like it a lot. But spending points to upgrade checks and difficulty is fiddly and low-impact.

In fact, many of the parameters of the game seem to be built on a profound misapprehension about how powerful the challenge and proficiency dice are and the frequency of surplus advantages. There are weapons with critical ratings of 4 or 5, as if the chances of that level of surplus did not round to zero. In table 7-5, which talks about how to spend advantage and triumph in starship combat, two options for spending triumph are: “Do something vital to turning the tide of the battle, such as destroying a capital ship’s shield generator or losing a pursuing ship in an asteroid field”, and “Upgrade an allied character’s next Piloting Gunnery, Computers, or Mechanics check”. Which is deeply weird. That first use of a triumph is obviously extremely powerful – much more powerful than a simple critical hit. Yet for a character with skill, getting a triumph is much more likely than rolling a critical hit! The second effect, on the other hand, is comparatively trivial. Not only that, but it’s usually weaker than adding a boost die to the same check, which you can do with a single advantage! The proficiency dice do come with triumph symbols which boosts do not, which complicates the comparison slightly, I think the general rule holds. Boosts increase you chances of success more than proficiency dice do.

One of the interesting ways in which the dice pool works that did make sense is how armor affects defense. Armor is generally modeled through setback dice, and the interesting thing as that while it’s generally a modest reduction in your to-hit chances (on the order of 8%), it really nerfs your chances of getting surplus advantages (the impact on triumphs is less noticeable).

At the end of the day I’m not sure what to make of all this. I like the dice pool mechanic quite a bit, and if you look at it as a core system, it has lots of interesting features and it’s fun to roll lots of colorful dice. For purely narrative checks it works great, as long as you have a basic grasp of the frequency of some combinations. However, a lot of the crunchy superstructure built on top of it seems deeply suspect.

In the long term, to make a more smoothly functioning game, I think we need a serious recalibration of many of the parameters of the game system. Fortunately, it’s not too hard to figure out some tweaks to make your game run better. Here is what I’ve taken away from it for my GMing:

  1. Be very generous in handing out setback and boost dice; they are the most interesting dice to add to routine checks. Use the boosts like candy; give them to players as a reward for trying something cool cinematic, in addition to their modeling function. They are fairly strong, and in order to get surplus advantage to trigger interesting game effects (primarily in combat), characters are going to need the extra punch provided by boosts. The point of diminishing returns on the chance of success is at about 85-90%, so dice beyond that point (roughly +3 dice, although obviously the system has a lot of variability) are mainly going into generating advantage. A lot of talents also remove setback dice, so in order for that to be interesting you need to be handing them out fairly routinely. As a corollary for players, all those things you can do to gain boost dice in combat (aim, spending advantage) are worth doing.
  2. Don’t overdo the triumph symbols, either narratively or in combat. When characters are skilled, triumphs are not that uncommon (12-15% for a balanced dice pool with a couple Proficiency dice). Feel free to go nuts with multiple triumphs, but a single triumph should not be allowed to dismantle a scene or conflict.
  3. Be aware of the system’s significant bias for success with threat and failure with advantage in routine checks. This is actually mostly a feature, not a bug, and allows you to make success more complicated and (more usefully) mitigate failure. But it does get repetitive, so don’t get too worked up about it; it’s OK for the benefits of rolling an advantage or two on a failed check to be small and transitory, since it’s very common. It also argues for rolling dice only when it’s genuinely interesting to do so, but that’s good advice for any game under any circumstances.
  4. The Destiny pool doesn’t really work, because the impact of a single challenge or proficiency die just isn’t big enough. I don’t really have a solution for this. The house rule I’m considering using is to have the GM spend them for Numenera-like intrusions as the flip side of the players’ “Luck and Deus Ex Machina”, but what the system seems to really want is just a much more potent die.
  5. Find ways to get more challenge dice into the game, just so you can play with despair. As written, the system favors adding setback dice to modify difficulty, which I think generally makes sense, but we’re just not rolling enough red dice and they don’t have enough impact on the game. While excess threat is generally easier to find then excess advantage, we still want to see those despair symbols occasionally! Consider giving more opponents the Adversary talent. Minion groups especially currently really suck, and giving more imposing ones (Stormtroopers, TIE wings) some kind of levels of Adversary would help mix things up.
  6. Speaking of Minion groups, they do really suck because the extra proficiency dice they get for being in larger groups just aren’t hugely significant. I think this is fine and generally the intent of the game, but just bear it in mind. Big groups of minions are far more imposing on the page than they are in actual play. The number of groups is far more important than the numbers in each group.
  7. During character generation, I like to give players an extra 40XP to spend after spending their initial allotment (I think this number could actually be even larger). The system is so heavily biased in favor of characteristics that players are going to sensibly spend as many of of their initial points as possible on those. Making sure your character has one characteristic of 4 is a huge deal. Low characteristics, 1 or 2, can limit you because they cap the number of yellow dice you can roll, and so in the long term limit your ability to generate triumphs no matter how skilled you become. Giving players some points they must  spend on skills & talents to differentiate the characters seems wise. In an unrelated point, characters need a lot more starting money – 1500 credits instead of 500 seems closer to right. Yes, there are options for spending Obligation or Duty for more equipment, but messing with this is awkward and 500 credits is just ludicrously low.

This may all sound negative, and I do think it’s true that there is too much in the game that just doesn’t make much sense as designed. Unfortunately, there are a lot of things in the game – weapon ratings, talents, advantage spends – that clearly are at least somewhat misaligned. But, the cool thing about the system is that fundamentally it’s quite simple and elegant and has a lot of potential. Once you’ve gotten a handle on how things actually work, it’s not that hard to hammer things into some form of order. I still need to find a fix for the destiny pool, but I feel like as I play more and get more of an understanding of how the pieces fit together, and how to use them properly (even if that’s not exactly what the rules say), I’m happier with the game. While it’s always going to be a game in need of constant tinkering to keep working, that tinkering is not particularly onerous, Star Wars is fun, dice are fun, and the core system is good.

Player Agency in boardgames and RPGs

Last week there was an interesting interview on Slate’s The Gist with Peter Mendelsund, an ex-concert pianist and current designer of book covers. The conversation turned to how much agency the audience/reader/player has when engaging with different types of entertainment, and the interesting quote that struck me and got me thinking about boardgames was this:

… we imagine reading as being a medium in which we have no agency, we’re passive recipients of the author’s work, and video games as being the opposite, where we’re active participants. And the more you examine, say, just those two media you find out it’s actually quite the opposite in some ways, that reading is way more active and we have way more agency than we think we do and in video games it’s sort of the opposite, we’re way more put in the runnels that the programmer has made for us.

The argument is that because literary descriptions are usually fairly economical, the reader does a lot of construction out of their experience and imagination to create the scene that is in truth only sketched in the text. Mendelsund calls out The Lord of the Rings specifically as a book that relies on the agency of the reader to create the full experience, and how for him the movies ruined the experience of reading the books – because now when Gandalf appears he just conjures up Ian McKellen instead of engaging his imagination. Mendelsund is a book cover designer, and he thinks about the fact that once you concretize a character through an illustration, you take away some of the reader’s agency.

This tweaked me immediately because I had been thinking about player creativity and its vital role in boardgames and RPGs. I have been getting back into MMP’s Operational Combat Series of wargames with the fantastic Reluctant Enemies, and as I was playing it reminded me why I love these games: they generally give the players a huge amount of latitude to do creative and expressive problem-solving, to change not just their chances of winning but the entire course of the game. It struck me as similar to the effect I aim for in the Star Wars: Age of Rebellion game I am running, albeit using a completely different set of tools in a completely different context. The recent release of the terrific Blue Moon Legends has me playing that again also, which has always struck me as a game that particularly rewards finding creative cardplay sequences and combinations, something above and beyond pure tactical analysis.

It became clear to me that a game that gave its players real agency is what divides the good from the great for me. Immediately after thinking this, though, I realized that what exactly agency is in this context is not so easy to simply express. Intriguingly, it seems to work in exactly the same way for both RPGs and boardgames, and so at first I thought of “agency” as “rewarding player creativity”. But as I thought about it more, it became more slippery. Creativity is clearly a very big part of it, but it’s not a sufficient description. Games from across the spectrum can reward various types of player creativity in a range of different ways: High Frontier, Race for the Galaxy, Lost Legends, Blue Moon Legends, Android: Netrunner, Battle Above the Clouds, No Retreat, Ashen Stars, The One Ring. But there are other games where the players clearly have what I think of as agency but which I can’t really see as creative per se, like Modern Art and Lord of the Rings. There are games where players need to be creative but it’s not clear they have agency, like Dixit or Telestrations. There are games which seem like they might reward creativity, but system imbalances or constraints mean they probably don’t, like X-Wing or GMT’s COIN games. And there are games which support or provide outlets for creativity in different ways but where it’s not really part of the game, like Arkham Horror or Games of Thrones: Westeros Intrigue.

This last category is intriguing to me, because it’s both a very large class of games and also the closest analogy to Mendelsund’s idea of how we interact with books: although the players’ choices don’t affect the course of the game, on the other hand the experience of playing provides a sketch in which you have to (and which the game allows you to) fill in with your imagination to move forward and bring the game to life. In a game, though, I find this form of agency the least compelling, least useful, and also the most technically difficult to meld with an interesting game. Games are different from books: they are shared with multiple people and require a shared framework, and they take place in strict time where everyone has to move at the same pace, more or less. They require a quite different sort of player agency to feed engagement. It’s clear that simply engaging the players’ imaginations can turn a so-so game (Grand National Derby) into a very good one (Titan: The Arena), or a non-game (Munchkin) into something people like a lot. But this is not a particular strength of the boardgame form, and I’m always far more interested in what games can do that other forms can’t.

To loop back a bit, in the realm of RPGs I’ve spent the last few years pursuing games that strongly encourage player agency. For me, RPGs aren’t fun – either as a player or the GM – unless the players are actively involved in the creative process, unless their decisions change not just their chance of success in any given scene but the entire course of the story. Thus I have been drawn to Ashen Stars, Night’s Black Agents, Numenera, and Hillfolk. For plenty of players, though, agency is not a feature and is in fact something they specifically don’t want. They want the GM to set up some scenes for them, and they want to interact with them. Just as in the world of boardgames, there are games that support both preferences. I think this may be part of the trap that 13th Age fell into for me personally: although it tries to give the players much more freedom to be creative, it is also clearly set in a genre where the main games (D&D and Pathfinder) are the games of choice for players who don’t particularly want agency.

I came away from all this thought without a clear definition of how agency works in boardgames, other than that it is important to me and some people like it and others don’t (the picture is obviously much clearer in RPGs). So I thought I’d close with a few capsule comments about boardgames where I feel like I have real agency and how I think it works.

Knizia’s Lord of the Rings is a game that is sending distinctly mixed messages, and presents a particularly difficult critical problem. On the one hand, with its fixed throughline, the players clearly have no ability to affect the overarching flow of the game. On the other hand, because the risk-reward probabilities are so complex and the thinking required frequently so long-term, the players do have a huge amount of flexibility in how they choose to attack the problems – far more meaningful flexibility than in any other cooperative game, even before you throw in the expansions. While the instances of truly creative problem-solving may be rare, they do exist; those occasional eureka moments where you realize that if I use the Miruvor, you can pass the Mithril to Frodo which allows him to use Gollum without dying and to escape from Shelob’s Lair are really cool. At the same time, the fixed throughline could be viewed as a list of checkpoints which allow all the players to stay on track together while still being able to construct their own internal narratives. I don’t think of Lord of the Rings as giving the players true narrative or creative agency; the real strength of the game is how it evokes the books in forging the players into a fellowship through the trials it sets up for them (and this is perhaps the greatest agency the players have, in how they relate to the other players in the game). On the other hand the game is also so much more than the sum of its mechanics, probabilities, and presentation, and it give the players the chance to decide what the game means to them.

Reluctant Enemies is the game that sent me down this path, because as I was playing it – even as the more reactive Vichy French who play primarily defense – I was impressed both by how much legitimate flexibility I had in deciding how to attack tactical problems, and how dramatically the choices of the players affects the flow of the game. Much of this is driven by how much information is concealed – available supply, so crucial to being able to do anything in this system – and so how much uncertainty there is. In a more traditional wargame like Roads to Moscow or France ’40 the players can see everything that matters and so it’s much harder for a game to get away from being strict tactical problem solving and allow players true flexibility and choice. Even in games like War of the Ring or Hammer of the Scots, where there is a lot of hidden information, right and wrong answers to the situation develop as players feel out the game and their flexibility and agency gets stripped away. By contrast, in Reluctant Enemies, right and wrong answers are created only out of the choices the players make and are largely unknowable in the moment.

Thinking of games where agency seems to start high but goes to zero over time, Dominion is to me a classic example. When you first play it there is this sense of endless possibility, that by creatively mixing and matching cards and ratios you can create interesting effects and control the game. As you gain even a little experience though, you find that the cards aren’t particularly well balanced, that some are worth the effort and many are not, that the game rewards simplicity to an extreme degree, and so each set tends to be an up-front tactical problem-solving search for the critical card or combination. Ascension (and similar games like Star Realms), by making you figure out how to take advantage of a constantly changing environment, is much better at tapping into player creativity and feelings of agency. It’s probabilistic – occasionally the exact cards you need are magically turned over off the deck, and everything just works out – but you earn your stripes in the game by turning what seems like a bunch of nothing into something.

Tales of the Arabian Nights is the game which is the obvious analog to the book-reading experience. As you string together these blocks of text you get to construct in your head the cinematic narrative. Because the ongoing story applies only to you, and only your choices affect it, it doesn’t matter if different players construct radically different ideas about what’s going on. Reading the paragraphs are also little bits of performance art (very little, but still). Additionally, and also cool, is that your choices of skills and how you develop them has obvious and significant effects on how the story unfolds. These elements are strengths and weakness, though. Because Tales is an analog to a book-reading experience (with each player individually developing his or her own story), and because book reading doesn’t scale that well past 1, having players beyond 2 or 3 simply degrades the experience.

Talking about Advanced Squad Leader in this context makes me sad because it’s a game I like, but at the end of the day I think ASL is much more of a game of tactical problem solving than it is about player creativity. The variety of tactical situations it puts you in is vast and it rewards being able to simplify very complex problems, but usually creative solutions are less important than correct solutions. The interesting counterpoint – which shows the huge range of the system and the difficulty of generalizing about it – is that the night rules change the texture of the game drastically. All of a sudden players have far less concrete information (and often more flexibility) and games can turn on creative bluffs and traps, which probably explains why I’ve always liked those scenarios.

Race for the Galaxy is game where I think this idea of agency is at the heart of why it is such a great game. You are always looking for creative ways to use the cards you’ve been dealt, reaching for combinations or strategies that will work, then trying them out and seeing what happens. Additionally, those choices have significant effects on how the overall game unfolds. If you go with a military strategy, that increases the number of Settle actions taken in the game in an obvious way, and so changes how the other players feel and choose in a way that simply isn’t true for the majority of purely tactical euros (Tzolk’in, Power Grid, Age of Steam). This feeling of control may age out after a long period of time as the contours of game balance become more fully explored, and the game’s expansions weren’t always handled adroitly, but introducing just the goal chits goes a long way by messing with that sense of balance and extending the creative phase of the game.

I’ve just started working with this idea in the realm of boardgames, so I’m sure my thoughts on it will evolve as I develop it. Maybe it will turn out to be a minor element of most boardgames, where it’s much harder to clearly see than it is in roleplaying, but it strikes me as an important intangible that helps separates the good from the great.

Origins: How We Became Human

I first played Origins: How We Became Human not long after it came out, back in 2008 (if you’re unfamiliar with the game, you might want to take a moment to skim that older writeup). Although I found the ideas and science behind it fascinating, I ultimately had to admit the game basically didn’t work. While the core systems were streamlined and playable, the list of grievances was long and serious: climate change die rolls that wipe you out in an instant of bad luck; development bottlenecks around increasing your energy capacity that had you rolling dice forever trying to get a 6 or endlessly digging through the card deck for the one or two cards that would unblock you; and the less said about the horror that was Acculturation, the better.

Still, recent Sierra Madre games have usually required a little tweaking, either in the form of “living rules” style updates from the publisher or home-grown house rules. Even High Frontier – a terrific game – needs to be played with slightly more sensible auction rules and tweaks for Deimos and one of the thrusters (the Salt Water Zubrin in the basic game). With Origins, there was and is clearly an interesting game in there. It just wasn’t clear what the rules tweaks needed to be to get at that game. Everyone I played Origins with disliked it enough (and the game takes long enough to play) that I never was able to get a handle on what the fixes needed to be.

Until now! Phil Eklund has done most of the heavy lifting through the optional rules now in the Origins rulebook. The absolutely critical ones are: Livestock Raids, Counterespionage, No Final Chaos, and Domestication in Uninhabitable Hexes. Without these rules the game basically doesn’t work: mainly, you can get futilely stuck in Age 1 forever spinning your wheels if you blow your domestication die rolls, or climate change can deny you the resources you need to make progress in the game. All the optional rules are definitely recommended and help the game, but these ones are critical. The original rules are clearly more faithful to the thematic ideas behind the game, but compromises have to made to the form to make it enjoyable to play.

Still, this wasn’t quite enough. The Acculturation action is still terrible and can completely ruin the fun. If your empire has an advantage in Culture advances, you’re allowed to Acculturate your neighbors: you steal one of their elders and add it to your pool. Since elders are otherwise expensive to acquire and critical to doing interesting things in the game, being acculturated to death by your neighbor is completely paralyzing and makes your game experience an exercise in frustration and futility. Fortunately, Morgan Dontanville suggested this fix: just have the Acculturation action steal a cube of the target players’ choice instead of an elder. This seems to be the answer. From the session reports I’ve read of players who made it into Era IV, the very late game – when players’ civilizations are well-established – might play better with the original rule, but in the early game when empires are small and there are few Culture cards available, being Acculturated to death without recourse is a horrible, game-ruining experience.

The last thing to worry about is how to finish the game in a reasonable amount of time, given that it’s fairly chaotic. Individual player turns are usually quick, but there is a lot of stuff to get through and until players achieve some mastery it can take 4-5 hours with 5 players, which I think is 1-2 hours longer than it wants to be. I think the answer is just to play with fewer players. Most Sierra Madre Games suffer from a downtime problem with more players – I recommend sticking to 3, maybe 4 players for High Frontier, High Frontier Colonization really wants just 3, and Pax Porfiriana is better with 4 than with 5, and better with 5 than 6. At least in High Frontier, there is plenty of planning you can do when it’s not your turn, but Origins is constantly in a state of flux and it’s hard to think that far ahead. I don’t have enough plays to know for sure, but my guess is the sweet spot is probably 3, maybe 4 players. Leave out the Cro-Magnons; they have a small but not zero chance of being totally screwed by climate change die rolls (the Hobbits can be in trouble too, but the Water Buffalo makes their situation less dire).

The final touch I’d add is to not have animals go extinct on domestication die rolls of 2 or 3 – at least not until players are familiar with the game. A bad combination of extinctions and climate change can leave a player well and truly stuck. It’s not as terrible as the other issues, and experienced players will know the risks, but it’s probably best avoided until you have better coping skills.

So in summary:

  • Use all the optional rules in the Living Rules.
  • Acculturation steals a cube of the victim’s choice, not necessarily an elder (it still goes back to the population track when lost).
  • Don’t play with 5 players; stick to 3 or 4.
  • Unless you know what you’re doing, animals never go extinct even with smaller numbers of players.
  • And, I should mention, don’t mess with Age IV.

There is also an updated poster map on Zazzle. While it’s not an essential addition to the game, there are a number of small tweaks that are helpful.

Finally, get Rick Heli’s summary of the deck compositions. Knowing how many of what types of cards are where is important to sensible play.

This still leaves plenty to not like about the game, if you are so inclined. Climate change can be frustrating. The game is unforgiving if you get your innovation track clogged. Like all Sierra Madre Games, you have to understand it has a distinctive aesthetic and you have to appreciate it by starting with figuring out what the game is trying to say (I talked about this in my Pax Porfiriana review). You don’t have to read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel  or Julien Jaynes  The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind to appreciate Origins: How We Became Human, but hey, those are important books, you should probably read them (well, definitely the Diamond anyway), and it helps. But you should certainly read the Designer’s Notes. Just don’t be put off by Eklund’s Objectivism. Yes, there is some Ayn Rand-style crazy in the Age IV deck; Phil doesn’t think much of public education apparently. But otherwise, he talks a better Libertarian talk than he actually walks. I have absolutely zero time for true Libertarians, and I found nothing philosophically objectionable in Origins. At least, not until the Age IV deck.

Last time I wrote about the game, I offered some play tips. Here are some of my updated thoughts:

Climate Change is the number one thing I hear people complain about, and it can feel capricious. I think you just need to go into the game knowing that the board is never going to look better than it does at start. There are three climate change cards in the Era 1 deck, and you need to realize that the most likely outcome is that one or both of the Jungle and Desert spots are going to become uninhabitable. So you need to play defensively, trying to make sure you don’t get hemmed in and have access to animals and metropolises until you have enough tech to cope with difficult terrain. This is sometimes easier said than done, especially for the Hobbits and Cro-Magnon. The worst-case scenario (Jungles and Deserts, plus the icecaps melt) is quite unlikely, but not impossible. There are two more climate changes in Age II and one in Age III, which are not to be ignored, but by that time you should have the technology and mobility to avoid disaster. Anyway, climate change is one of the key elements in the game so you need to be aware of the risks which can be large, especially early. Hopefully awareness will help you cope with them.

Population Actions are hard to know what to do with for a lot of the game. For the most part, a strategy of staying small with few pieces on the board and only adding metropolises and migratory tokens as you need to expand your elder pool is a smart strategy. However, an absolutely crucial technique for coping with a low innovation number is to park one of your units outside neighbors’ cities and using the Sabine Raid action to ransack her discard pile. Just co-existing is enough to qualify as a “siege” even if you never have any intent to attack the city. In general, larger-scale military operations are rarely worth the trouble, although occasionally knocking over an opponents city (to gain a guest worker) can be worth it. Just keep your eyes on the important things: high innovation and big elder pools. Enslaving your neighbors may be gratifying in the short term, but it rarely actually helps you that much and may actually be of some benefit to your victim. Population actions can be a stopgap substitute for Innovation actions, but it’s at best a risky and short-term fix, so use them to focus on getting cards that decrease your fecundity and increase your elder pool so you can go back to relying on Innovation actions and elder expenditures.

Getting enslaved is a bummer, and never something you would voluntarily make part of your game strategy outside of some very extreme situations. You should definitely do what you can to avoid it. It’s a chaotic game though, and if it should happen to you (which is more likely with a full compliment of players) don’t fail your personal morale check. One of the things that makes Origins work for me is that it’s a very dynamic game, with lots of ups and downs, unlike other modern civ-builders which only go relentlessly forward and where getting behind early means you’re dead. The inability to build metropolises while enslaved and therefore have more than one elder is clearly quite bad, but not worse than things were just before you were enslaved. There are some upsides; you get free infrastructure advances from time to time and a bunch of free units when your masters go into chaos. Bide your time, do what you can, build your innovation up, and get back in it later.

I mentioned this is my previous pieces, but try to acquire any Public Cards that you can, and don’t worry about scoring until you’re in your final Golden Age. The strategic advantages of all the public cards are so strong that you should always bid them up and try to get them. Administration lets you expand the size of your civilization which increases survivability, gives you more population actions, and allows you to increase your number of metropolises and therefore the size of your elder pool. Information effectively allows you to multiply your available elders by making the Economic Stimulation action much more efficient and gives you a lot more control by increasing your hand size. Culture gives you a much easier way to expand your elder pool through Acculturation and guest workers. And if that wasn’t enough, many cards give you early access to important actions, particularly Trade and Urbanization. Finally, there is the Revolution action which allows you to swap your victory card with another player or the cards in the box. While this is much more limited than it might first appear, you can be vulnerable until you are in the last Golden Age of the game. At that point you can lock in your victory conditions (including possibly using the Revolution action yourself to look for a better fit if you get there first) and factor that into your bidding. The Revolution action and its ability to move the goalposts bugs a lot of players when they first read it, but it’s actually not as chaotic as it seems and is an important part of the game. Through the early ages the key is to stay flexible and acquire what you can, so don’t get attached to your scoring card. It’s only the final age (or possibly ages if you’re playing with Age IV) where you’re going to focus on scoring, and Revolution gives the game some flexibility.

Origins: How We Became Human has always been in an odd spot for me. It clearly shares a lot of DNA with the modern (i.e., post-Origins), very successful Sierra Madre Games, but it never seemed to delver on its potential. So I was quite happy to find a configuration that allowed me to finally really enjoy the game and recommend it alongside High Frontier, Bios: Megafauna, and Pax Porfiriana.

Scoring and other problems of drama in boardgames

There was a little bit of interesting discussion over on BoardGameNews on the topic of games with convoluted, boring, or anti-climactic scoring. It got me thinking about a few things.

I think of some kind of scoring or endgame reckoning as an inherent part of the boardgame form. Games are structured player interaction, and specifically measurable goals are a natural part of the structure. Still, could you design a boardgame without any scoring at all? I don’t mean by this just not tracking points, I mean no game-specified objectives of any sort: no idea of player victory as in Pandemic or Lord of the Rings, no achievements as in Power Grid: The First Sparks, nothing. Just a set of rules that defines a system through which players interact and something that specifies how the game ends, and then the players discuss how it went.

The answer is clearly yes, but it would be hard. Republic of Rome is already somewhat close. I can imagine the Republic of Rome rulebook rephrased in such a way that the victory conditions simply became game-end conditions, with the players free to interpret them however they want. In actual play this already happens, as the game’s victory conditions are usefully vague on a number of key points. Players are left to figure out on their own how much they value the Republic surviving but them not winning, as opposed to the Republic falling. Also, because the routes to victory are so elusive and opportunistic, players will spend a lot of time pursuing goals of their own choosing in the hopes that it will ultimately set them up in some way for a big play. Republic of Rome wouldn’t quite work if you took away the entire concept of winning and losing, but it’s conceptually close enough that I could imagine something that would.

This leads me to my main point: boardgames, just like all the other media we consume, are not about winning and losing. Yes, performance evaluation is part of the form; but it is no more or less fundamental to the success of a boardgame than it is to a roleplaying game, book, or movie. In roleplaying games there are no victory conditions, but in reality players pursue well-understood core activities which present characters with challenges they are attempting to overcome, where success is victory and failure is a setback, and that sense of “winning” or “losing” drives the tension of the game even when it is not explicitly said. That tension of anticipation or expectation is what is important. That we have goals, and that pursuit of those goals creates tension and drama – even if the expectation is failure (Fiasco). The goals needn’t be explicitly specified, but it helps avoid inevitable misunderstandings when they are at least sketched out.

When thinking about opaque, implied, or non-existent scoring systems, ask yourself how it heightens the tension or drama of the game. In the case of 7 Wonders, it doesn’t – we pretty much know the couple people who are going to be within the margin of error of winning well before we start the tedious aspect of counting points. Having so many categories to tabulate doesn’t add drama because it doesn’t interestingly affect game choices, and ultimately only a couple early-game factors make or break your chances: getting a good production engine set up that works in synergy with resources you can buy from your neighbor, having a reasonably steady flow of cash in trade, and not getting stuck in an arms race.

Agricola’s scoring system, on the other hand, does heighten the drama of the rest of the game. If Agricola can be said to have a theme, it is of being spread thin, of having to build a farming empire when you have to spend much of your time just putting food on the table. By forcing you to diversify with a large number of potential penalties for failing to achieve minimal goals in a host of areas, Agricola’s endgame spreadsheet does serve a purpose in driving your decisions in support of the game’s theme. Also, because Agricola manages its tension well throughout the entire game by dramatically shortening the harvest cycle over time, scoring is rarely anti-climactic even when we have some idea of who has a chance to win and who doesn’t, because in the end it’s nice to know how we’ve done against the difficulties the game system has thrown at us in addition to how we’ve done against the other players.

There are similar arguments to be made about open scoring (like El Grande) vs. closed scoring (like Small World), or straightforward scoring (Through the Desert) vs. indirect scoring (Samurai). In each of these cases the choice of scoring dynamics serve the overall goal of maintaining game tension. El Grande’s open scoring adds tension to its somewhat constrained on-board tactics, while open scoring would drastically reduce the game tension of Small World, where board play is much more open. In Samurai, the slightly opaque scoring system both supports the game’s overall theme of indirection and heightens game tension by making theoretically trackable hidden information in practice very hard to track. Compare Samurai to Samurai: The Card Game, which is essentially the same game. Making scoring open in the card game heightens the tactical appeal, but slackens the game tension. We play the card game with screens.

The important thing here is that it’s the underlying tensions and how they are managed over the course of the game that are crucial. Scoring simply as performance evaluation or identifying winners is not interesting. You have to actually care about the game for winning to be meaningful so if you’re going to score, the way you do it has to validate the game experience. How it’s done matters a lot. Open versus closed scoring, for example, is usually not just a matter of which way players prefer to play with a simple house-rule bringing things into line – one way will usually work much better in terms of maintaining the game’s focus and drive, and will be the right answer.

Bastogne SCS

All right, let’s see if we can get some momentum going here again.

I had a chance to play MMP/The Gamers’ latest Standard Combat Series game Bastogne the other day. I have sort of a love/hate (well, maybe like/dislike) relationship with this particular series. I like that it’s simple and I can play almost all the game 15 minutes out of the box with little to no frustration. I like the minimalism of the design, the fact that it’s sort of a throwback reductionist system, with hexes, ZOCs, CRTs, and basically all the standard components of a 70s-era wargame. The series tries to take these absolute basics and use them in interesting ways.

As I played the first 4-5 turns of the full scenario, I was really excited about Batogne and felt like it did a lot of stuff right. The early game is awesome, with a mixed bag of Germans ranging from elite armored units to low-quality infantry driving into the teeth of American paratroopers and an armored combat command. They deal with constricted terrain and US artillery and lousy roads – sort of a microcosm of the entire Battle of the Bulge. SCS games like to be small to mid-sized, I think; the good games in the series have only moderate counter density and unit counts, like Afrika and Fallshirmjaeger. Bastogne does have a fair number of units, but the low stacking limits (a feature that seems to be popular with Bulge games recently) of only a counter or two in a hex keeps things under control. It’s not quite in the ideal SCS zone, but it’s close enough. The rules for road marches, which allow units to rapidly move across the map if not engaged, are terrific in allowing players to rapidly redeploy troops as was historically possible, while avoiding the worst of the problems of having units with immense movement factors as was the case in Crusader. They allow for reasonably surprising attacks, as well as forcing players to maintain reasonably strong and coherent lines.

But by the end, Bastogne had let me down. After turn 5, the game collapses under its own weight, much like The Mighty Endeavor did when it turned into a tweezer-fest in the final showdown on the German border. As is unfortunately so often the case with The Gamers-branded games, Bastogne falls apart on the player objectives. The Germans have to secure the cross-board roads on the last turn, but this turns into a mess of hunting down rogue US units (there are no supply rules, so units can exist in isolation in perptuity), working out all combinations of possible road march moves, and (for the Germans) grinding out the last few battles required to win, or (for the US) keeping a handful units in range to interdict the roads. After the major clashes of the first half, the second half of irritating cat-and-mouse securing is a serious letdown and I found it extremely tedious.

I find that I mistrust how The Gamers’ games tend to do victory conditions. I’ve heard the terms “Design for Cause” and “Design for Effect” swirl around their games, but I really think of these two terms more as “the right way” and “the wrong way”. Bastogne has several “Design for Effect” rules (or, in the case of supply, non-rules) which are basically arbitrary hacks to force the players to behave historically. For example, the US player receives reinforcements from TF Abrams, the lead units of Patton’s army, coming up from the south. Historically, they were apparently used to try to relieve pressure on the besieged Americans, not to block the roads. So there is a special rule which says that these units don’t count when determining whether or not the Germans control the roads, which means the Germans can “win” by securing a route paste Bastogne despite the presence of a large American armored formations on said road. The game would be silly without the rule – it would be extraordinarily hard for the Germans to secure the southern route, leaving them the northern route as the only viable way to win – but I’m not sure this is much of an improvement.

Too many SCS games have hacks like this to coerce historical play rather than to actually get at the roots of what is really going on. I refer you to Bowen Simmons fascinating and brilliant piece on Quiddity in his design diary for The Guns of Gettysburg. Obviously, the devil is in the details and maybe Guns of Gettysburg won’t work out (2014 note: oh yeah, it worked out). But that’s how you design victory conditions, and I anxiously await the new game.

It’s easy to speculate on what might have been for Bastogne, how the victory conditions might be tweaked to make the game more interesting. If the Germans could win as soon as the roads are secure (seems reasonable), that might help – the US aren’t getting any stronger as the game goes on. Or something more nuanced than “take and hold one of two roads plus some spare change” might have been good. Or some supply rules … I disagree with the designer’s notes on this, I think some supply rules would have helped to deter both unsupportable German suicide runs into Bastogne for cheap points as well as lone isolated Americans hunkering down off the grid for days in order to jump on supply roads right at the end.

All this is speculation though. Unfortunately, I think the second half of Bastogne just doesn’t work very well. So for me, this is yet anther SCS game with a lot of promise that can’t deliver. Gamers’ games often seem to have these sorts of victory condition problems, and Bastogne seems to suffer more than most.

I’d be interested if anyone can, as a thought experiment, come up with a good answer for what the Quiddity was for the siege of Bastogne. All I can come up with is the somewhat unsatisfactory “as the Germans, you’re hosed”. This seems like a tactical battle that was lost at the operational level because the Germans never had the forces to win, in large part because they never had the forces to undertake the whole Bulge thing in the first place.

Britannia, Fury of Dracula Update

Britannia is one of those classics from the 80s that is still popular today in some circles, but which I am inclined to label a “cult” classic. It wasn’t bad for its day, but how well could it hold up in 2006? It’s pretty long, pretty repetitive, and play tends to be stereotyped – or such was my recollection. But with Fantasy Flight doing a remake, and with my interest in British history, I was good for a game (one of the nice things about reprints is that it gets interesting older games onto the table when they probably would not be played otherwise, at all).

The good news on Britannia is that it actually does a lot right. In my recent posts I’ve been ranting about the various underlying problems with these free-form multi-player wargames (compound interest, turtling, pick-on-the-leader) that modern games like Twilight Imperium or Antike don’t even seem to acknowledge the existence of, let alone try to solve. These games have to try to find some sort of balance point: free-form enough so that players feel they have some control, yet not so free-form that everyone just always guns for the leader and the winner is decided on the last turn.

Britannia hasn’t found a perfect spot, but overall it has done a rather good job. The different and fairly specific scoring conditions for the many different nations (each player will control 4 or 5 throughout the game) means that the players have tactical problems to solve, but they aren’t given free rein to wail on whoever they want to. An honest player is going to have a hard time justifying randomly picking on people, since it will generally be very detrimental to their chances. On the other hand, somebody else is almost always going to be occupying the terrain you want to hold, so there is always incentive for action. Very few nations (maybe the Welsh and Caledonians) are going to be able to sit on their hands and rack up points; everyone is always going to be impelled to act if they want to win. There are going to be times when you have a few options about where to get your points, and it will come down to who you think is winning, and that is reasonable and expected, but in general the game feels constructive – you are pursuing your own fairly specific goals instead of just taking down your opponents. I think later games that have developed or borrowed from Britannia, from Vinci to History of the World to 7 Ages, have missed the point of the original. In Britannia, the scripted arrival and departure of nations, and their specific scoring conditions, serve to give the game a sense of balance and direction.

The downside, of course, is that you can feel railroaded. Players in Britannia have fairly few strategic options. The Danes aren’t deciding whether the south or north of England looks more promising; their tactical objectives are etched in stone. You are, for the most part, just going with the flow and solving tactical problems. That would be fine – the tactical problems are modestly engaging – but Britannia’s ultimate problem is, of course, the length. Our game took a bit over 6 hours, and it felt like that was about how long the game is realistically going to take under anything but the best of circumstances – we made good progress and didn’t dawdle. At 6 hours, Britannia is easily 2 hours too long. If we had been done at the four hour mark, I would have been happy – the game is flavorful, and the ebb and flow of the empires make for a game with some interesting variability. The Roman period has a very different flavor from the Saxon period and the Norman endgame. But it’s just not quite enough, in my opinion. Given the choice, I’d take Revolution: The Dutch Revolt, 5-player classic Civilization, or Dune any day; they are similar-length, comparable-complexity games, but in those cases the game-play itself – the range of activities and tactical problems – is much richer and more interesting, so those games seem to be less repetitive, to maintain more interest right to the end.

On balance, I did enjoy Britannia – I think there is a lot of stuff to like in there, the game has its own unique historical flavor, and you could do a lot worse with even many modern games of this sort. If it had been a four hour playing time, I’d be ready to play again sometime soon. But it wasn’t, and it didn’t seem likely to ever get there given infrequent play. So unless one of my friends suddenly becomes a huge fan, I’ll probably play it again in a year or two, and I’ll enjoy it again then for the history and for the flavor, but it’s not something that’s ever going to hit the table with anything approaching regularity.

Last comment: in general, I like the new Fantasy Flight production. The counter illustrations perhaps err a bit too much towards artistry and so are a bit murky at times, but the overall effect is nice. My only complaint is the yellow board. What’s the deal with that? Green would have been a better choice. I can only assume that nobody of Anglo-Irish extraction was involved in that decision-making process.

Sorry, no clever segue this time …

Since I last wrote about Fury of Dracula, I’ve played it like 4 more times. One game went 4+ hours, and that was too long; the game had gotten pretty tedious by the end. But the other games have weighed in at 2.5 to 3.5 hours, and that’s quite comfortable. Dracula has been hammered once, and won in a walk once, and the other two were very close. The Hunters can afford a few mistakes; Dracula cannot. Even one apparently minor screw-up can have dire consequences.

So, to update my previous advice for Dracula:

  • I previously said that you should avoid attacking. I will now temper that advice. You want to be very careful, yes; but there are definitely situations when it’s worthwhile, at least at night: when you can maul an individual hunter, or where you can use your Escape (Bat) to break out of an encircling ring. Just try not to bite anyone who is too early in the turn order. If the Hunters can Hypnotise Godalming, the rest of them can gang up on you before you get a chance to move.
  • Once the hunters are hot on your trail, it’s frighteningly difficult to shake them. About the only way to throw them off is to go to sea. So use sea movement, but use it sparingly. If you’re at sea for too long, it becomes more apparent where you are going to eventually land, generally, and it costs you more blood. Also, being at sea has an unfortunate consequence: it can dramatically lengthen the game, since time stops and the hunters can’t catch you until you land. Since this is time when you are doing nothing, but the hunters are gearing up, it is to be avoided. And try to make sure that your departure is late in the day. You’ll be very vulnerable when you first debark, so if you’ve got a few turns of night to make a break for it, that’ll help a lot.
  • In general, the game seems to progress through an early stage of them looking for you, through to a hot pursuit. If you can mature a New Vampire in the early game and then make a clean escape from their first round of pursuit, you should be in an excellent position to win.
  • Avoid the peripheries of the board. Eastern Europe is cool, but it can be badly constrained by Heavenly Hosts and Hallowed Ground. If the Hunters catch you there, England is a deathtrap. Wherever you go, it’s about keeping your options open. Don’t voluntarily limit your options (by, say, going to Ireland) unless you really think it’ll throw the Hunters. I’ve found that starting in a peripheral location the Hunters haven’t adequately covered (Eastern Europe, Italy, England) and laying down a New Vampire, then working towards the middle of the board is a good way to go. But it all depends on what the Hunters do.
  • The right encounter chits make all the difference. With that in mind, use Dark Call earlier rather than later if you’ve got a lousy hand (don’t forget it can be used during the day). And if you have breathing space, don’t neglect the Feed card either. It’s one less location in your trail, and an extra blood or two will come in handy.

Fury of Dracula has held up quite well to a bunch of play in a short time, and I think it’ll turn out to be a long-term keeper. It’s a touch too long to be a regular, and I can see it getting a bit samey if you played every week, but definitely a winner when you’re looking for a change of pace.