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.

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Pathfinder Adventure Cardgame

For a guy who ostensibly thinks dungeon-crawling is stupid, I sure have played a lot of games in that genre of late. The latest is Pathfinder: The Adventure Card Game, a cooperative game from Paizo Publishing, and it’s not bad.

The game is a quite faithful port of the Pathfinder/D&D3 roleplaying experience, minus the actual roleplaying (which is traditionally optional anyway). You’ve got a character with strength, dexterity, wisdom, and so on, each rated as a die size (d4, d6, d8, etc., but ironically not a d20). Encounters (which can be monsters, barriers, allies, treasures) have a target number which you need to beat to successfully navigate. You can play cards from your character’s personalized deck and use your inherent special powers to boost your skills, and occasionally your allies can help you. Track down and kill the episode’s Villain, usually cutting a swathe through his or her Henchpeople on the way, and you win. After the game, you can rebuild your character’s deck using cards you’ve acquired during the adventure to make him or her more potent next time.

The mechanics of this are simple and nicely done, but not particularly noteworthy. What I think is interesting is looking at how the game approaches the question of how to balance narrative scripting against gameplay variability.

Cooperative games usually need to provide some kind of narrative experience to be successful; they can’t just be intellectual puzzles. There are obviously a lot of ways to do this, but the general idea is to give the series of challenges the players must overcome (and rewards they receive for doing so) some sort of structure designed to engage them. This can be entirely narrative, with the challenges having some attached title or flavor text which is read aloud with the story becoming emergent as the texts are read (as long as they are coherent enough that players can improvise logical connections). Or the structure can be much more constructed and explicit, with challenges and rewards designed and ordered to produce an intended overall emotional story arc.

Examples of games which use the first idea are easy to find; successful examples include Robinson Crusoe, Tales of the Arabian Nights, and Ghost Stories (or Arkham Horror, Shadows over Camelot, or Defenders of the Realm, if you consider those games good). You have a huge supply of little storylets, which are pulled out more or less randomly and translated into game-mechanics form. A windstorm hits (reducing your shelter level), your lack of Courtly Graces offends the nobility (and you become Scorned), or whatever. As they are read they form a timeline you can create a story out of.

This has the gameplay advantage of making the tasks you are facing varied and unpredictable, and differ greatly from game to game. It also allows the players to do their own storytelling when the events remain within the bounds of the somewhat plausible. The huge disadvantage, as anyone who has a basic understanding of literature or music will tell you, is that we have a pretty good understanding of how compelling narratives are built, and this is most definitely not it. Stories have build-up, carefully managed cycles of tension and resolution, anticipation, and suspense. None of which you can reliably do if you’re just pulling random storylets.

Still, I think there is nothing inherently wrong with this way of doing things. For example, while Nuclear War or Fluxx aren’t particular good games by 2014 standards, they do have delightful anti-establishment or satirical aesthetics that are both completely coherent and tied up with their total randomness (and, it bears mentioning, their brevity). Or a game like Once Upon a Time, where the players’ attempts to create signal out of noise and find ways to creatively link events is what the game is. So clearly it’s possible to do great work this way. But it’s also an easy and unfortunate default pattern when a designer is unskilled, or when a game doesn’t have a strong creative vision or anything particular to say. If you look at a big and intricate game like Battlestar Galactica, where the fictional world it’s designed to emulate has a clear authorial style, it’s hard to see the merit in having the players interact with a simple, random, unstructured throughline.

The opposite end of the spectrum is Knizia’s highly structured Lord of the Rings. Here, the story events and the challenges associated with them are laid out in a strict order. You’re going through Rivendell to Moria to Rohan, and that’s all there is to it. You face the same challenges (and narrative elements) in the same order each game. There is this still quite a lot of randomness in the timing of the events and resource flows, as random draws from a bag of tiles trigger various game elements, but the story events that drive the narrative are scripted.

This strong structure gives the gameplay itself the ebb and flow required to make the story engaging. The designer can directly tweak and manage the flow of challenges and rewards to manipulate the moment-to-moment game tension, hopefully giving us both high-tension action scenes and rewarding us with moments of rest and refresh after we get through. This can, when well executed, give us a far more visceral engagement with the game because it goes after our emotions very directly. Pandemic does the same thing: the structured way the decks are manipulated (pre-stacking the player deck, the stacking and re-stacking of the infection deck) alternates high-risk and high-tension periods where you are firefighting crises with lower-risk infrastructure-building and research-gathering periods.

Even though for all these reasons I think of the structured narrative as “the right way” and the random event firehose as “the wrong way”, in truth it’s a continuum and structure is certainly not an end in and of itself. The goal is to modulate the players’ sense or risk, to feed the dread of anticipation and allow the relief and accomplishment of a challenge faced down, and that requires both a degree of predictability as well as significant risk and therefore uncertainty. Clearly you can go too far in trying to organize your narrative – making the story predictable and boring – just as you can make a game too random and disjointed. It wouldn’t be hard to argue that Britannia, for example, is too well-organized and that it needs more uncertainty to maintain tension. My experience though is that cooperative or narrative-driven games almost never err on the side of being too structured.

The interesting thing about Pathfinder is that from the long view it resembles classic, unstructured, firehose-driven games. You have a box containing a very large number of cards that the characters can encounter, and you randomly pull some of them out and deal them into piles at different locations to explore. When you explore, you just draw a card from a location deck and do what it says, with perhaps minor assistance from the other players. The Villain is dealt into one of these piles at random and you just need to plow through the decks to hunt him down. If your goal is hunting the bad guy, there are no percentages in going to the Apothecary before you hit the Treacherous Cave; the Villain is equally likely to be anywhere. It’s eerily similar to Arkham Horror’s “go to a location and random stuff happens for no particular reason”.

But Pathfinder combines straightforward gameplay with just enough structure to make decision-making and task allocation interesting and have a real but measured sense of risk. Each location has a clearly specified mix of cards that go into the deck: monsters, barriers, weapons, armor, spells, items, and allies. The mix is listed on the top of the location card, where you can always look at it and know what you’re getting in to. So unlike in Arkham Horror, when you go to a location you have a pretty clear idea of what you might get out of it and which character is best suited for the challenges it might present (the Thief for the location with the barriers, the Fighter for the place with the monsters, the Sorcerer for the place with the allies). Still, while the Fighter may be the best person to take on the monsters in the Desecrated Vault, there is still usually the possibility that he’ll run into a barrier or trap that’ll hose him, so there is almost always still some risk. And there are balancing factors; maybe you really need to find a better a weapon, so a trip to the Garrison is worth the risk of facing monsters. More likely, you don’t have a character who is ideally suited to exploring a location, but someone has to do it, so you need to figure out who is going to sign up for the increased risk (because you always have to face the card you draw, teaming up is actually not particularly useful). Additionally, once locations have been cleared of Henchpeople, they need to be “closed”, secured against the Villain’s return. This involves another test, and the character best suited to exploring the location may well not be ideally suited to closing it. Opportunities to close a location are infrequent and valuable and you want someone who is able to do it there when the opportunity presents itself, which is another matter of risk management. This all adds up to a significant amount of nuance and randomness, but because the general contours are spelled out and what needs to be done is clear, it’s interestingly tractable. You always know what you need to do to make forward progress, and you can make judgements about risk and reward that can pay off or not.

However, what this structure doesn’t do is give you any overall sense of pacing or drive. Some locations are more dangerous than others (sometimes significantly so, often not), but the game never modulates its moment-to-moment tension. You’re never forced to run the gauntlet before you want to or go into panic defense mode, nor are you given a moment of respite to recover and gear up after facing something particularly dangerous. Pathfinder’s time pressure is just a 30-turn clock you need to beat – an arbitrary, inorganic limit. Compare to Pandemic, with its beautifully organic ebbing and flowing threat and pressure, where you need to win before the diseases do. By comparison, Pathfinder just has a time limit because if it didn’t there would be no game. Given Pathfinder’s source material this is fine, time just isn’t a dimension of traditional D&D stories; for structural reasons D&D-style RPGs in general have a difficult time managing time as a storytelling pressure. But this is a boardgame, not an RPG, and there is no need to be bound by a stricture of the original format.

Interestingly for a game that lacks any kind of strong overarching narrative, Pathfinder eschews any sort of explicit textual elements. Cards have illustrations and more or less descriptive titles but no flavor text. There are no “event” cards which add dramatic twists or change the rules or environment. The only real explanation of what you’re trying to accomplish comes up front, when you select the adventure to go on and get a few perfunctory sentences of flavor on the card that also outlines the locations, Villains, and Henchpeople involved (location cards also have some static descriptions, but they are in practice invisible because they’re on the back of the card). This makes the experience somewhat generic. The box says it’s the “Rise of the Runelords Base Set”, with the “Rise of the Runelords” being the long-form adventure arc which wends its way through the base game and 5 expansions. But there is no sense that this is taking place in anything other than just a generic D&D fantasy world. If the premise of the story is that there are Runelords and they are rising, the game doesn’t exactly go out of its way to fill you in on what’s up with that.

What this long arc does capture, though, is very distinctively D&D: the slow, grinding out of improvements to your character and his or her equipment. You wade through monsters and challenges and maybe you’ll find a longsword to replace your short sword. The upgrades to your character and availability of new cards to add your deck are sporadic; after four games, you may have a better weapon or one more spell, or you may have basically the same deck you started with and one minor skill improvement. After you make it all the way through all the adventures your character will have accomplished quite a bit in the end, but that will be a lot of hours of gaming and the rewards for risking death each time out are very incremental. That’s fine, it’s the D&D tradition, but in the context of a boardgame it feels wrong. If this is the route we’re going to go, I’d like more intense pacing. Personally, I’d much rather have multiple, complete 6-episode arcs which have a quick pace and you can play a character through and then move on to the next story with a fresh character. The 36-episode monster arc just seems like a huge time sink. This feels to me like a back-port from MMORPGs, and not really appropriate for a boardgames.

Still, when all is taken into account I do like Pathfinder: The Adventure Card Game: Rise of the Runelords well enough. The pacing of the long adventure arc is probably too slack to keep me interested for that long, but the individual adventures are playable, quick, simple, and are structured well enough to provide both meaningful decisions and some tension. It’s certainly not in the same league as Robinson Crusoe, Pandemic, or Lord of the Rings, but you can’t play those games all the time and some of them require a significant energy investment while Pathfinder is more lightweight. Besides, D&D is more than a game now, it’s become something of a cultural touchstone. While the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game may not exactly be a work of game design brilliance, it is a workmanlike game that has a huge weight of tradition behind it.

Göthe takes on The Virgin Queen

Despite having turned on Here I Stand after a handful of games, I picked up The Virgin Queen at GMT West last year – lured perhaps by the lower turn count, the more open game situation, the promise of more reasonable rules for playing with fewer players, and the memory that I did enjoy Here I Stand for a number of games before it became tedious.

What I find interesting about both games is that they seem to defy basic critical analysis as games for me. Göthe says that in a work of criticism, we should figure out what something is trying to do, whether it succeeded in doing it, and whether it was worth doing. That first question is where The Virgin Queen mystifies me. OK, we know that it’s trying to portray the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. But that’s too broad to be helpful. What is the game trying to say? And how, exactly, is it trying to say it?

It’s clearly not going the abstract, high-level route favored by many successful thematic games: Beowulf, Settlers, Lord of the Rings, Pandemic, Modern Art, Sekigahara, Napoleon’s Triumph, Rommel in the Desert, or perhaps Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage, just to pick a few. These games try to focus on just one or at most a few really essential things about the topic (Bowen Simmons used the term quiddity) and use that as the cornerstone of the design. Clearly, limiting scope is a foreign concept to The Virgin Queen, and the many and varied subsystems (mini-games, almost) are given fairly equal design weight.

Another design option is to focus on the decision making of the historical parties and try to convey the forces that pressed on them. This is the method Mark Herman called out in the designer’s notes for For the People, and while I don’t think it was particularly successful there, a great example of a game system where it works is the Great Campaigns of the American Civil War series (the most recent, in-print installment being Battle Above the Clouds). While Battle Above the Clouds’ game systems are inherently abstract, with dice rolls controlling movement and initiative even though historical commanders knew quite well how far a division could march in a day, it masterfully conveys the confusion, uncertainty, and murk those commanders faced in a way that remains fun to play and recreates the historical press-your-luck decision making pressures. Another classic game in this mold is Up Front, and Labyrinth might be trying to go this route also. Clearly this is also not the approach The Virgin Queen is taking. The trade-offs made by players in The Virgin Queen are fundamentally arbitrary – Elizabeth I didn’t have some spreadsheet in which she allocated some of her budget to Shakespeare, some of it to New World piracy, and some of it to whacking Catholics. She certainly never thought, “hey, if I can avoid getting married ever, I’ll earn a bunch of VP!”. I’ve never been able to get my head around how the cards in The Virgin Queen (or The Napoleonic Wars) are supposed to be driving authentic, or even interesting, decision-making pressures.

Another way you can go is to be representational. The idea here is to present a playing field that is as rich a simulation as is possible or reasonable as constrained by the game’s complexity targets, then throw out the historical personalities and let the players step into their place. Obviously, a key here is being able to blend sensible abstraction of key elements and knowing when simulation detail is useful in either producing interesting and evocative decisions or eliciting emotional response, but the idea of authentically portraying processes is key. Vance von Borries is a master of this sort of design, and Mark Simonitch’s ‘4X games are great examples of games that both focus in on critical factors, abstracting the rest, while also having just the right amount of simulation detail. Other great examples to my mind include Europe and Asia Engulfed, EastFront and Downtown. This is an approach in which the key difficulty is knowing how much complexity is sensible, something about which reasonable people can disagree. Regardless, The Virgin Queen isn’t doing this either. The idea that many of the game’s manifold distinct and abstract subsystems – patronage, piracy, naval operations, religious conflict – are modeling historical processes is laughable.

The Virgin Queen, like Here I Stand, feels very similar to other “card-driven” GMT titles like Twilight Struggle, Paths of Glory, Barbarossa to Berlin, and The Napoleonic Wars. They are all resource management games where the resources being managed are abstract and not really in service of any thematic focus. The subject matter is just window dressing – sometimes rather nice window dressing, but still. These games just seem to be trying to present the players with constant tough decisions. As games, they are successful to the extent that they can do that. Paths of Glory: definitely, at least for a few games; Barbarossa to Berlin: yes, at least when the cardplay is viewed in conjunction with the more representational on-board tactical game; Twilight Struggle: for me, eh, not so much, although others find the decision-making more compelling; The Napoleonic Wars: no.

If this is the this way we’re going to view the games, both Here I Stand and The Virgin Queen must ultimately be judged failures. They don’t reliably present tough or even interesting choices once you understand the game’s basic structure. And they don’t deliver those choices in a timely manner.

I have more beefs than this with The Virgin Queen. The game is unstable and balance is suspect; the narrative tension is absent; it’s overly complex and overly long; the design of the card deck doesn’t produce useful suspense (unchanged from Here I Stand). I could enumerate and detail these and other mechanical problems. At the end of day, though, the game simply lacks a coherent thematic focus and so it lives and dies on its ability to rapidly present the players with tense decisions. Which for me, it doesn’t do.

Is this sort of thing really worth doing, especially in the space of very long, very complex games? To me, not especially. For one, getting the balance right – delivering these constant, difficult decisions to the players – is technically challenging even in a short game and gets dramatically more difficult to the point of practical impossibility as you add length, rules, and scope. For another, this is a very well-mined field. Games that deliver tough choices without much thematic payload are a dime a dozen.

I’m aware that lots of people are rather fond of both games, and even think of them as highly thematic, so I have to ask myself: maybe there is something else going on? Obviously, they find something there that I don’t, and it’s pretty unlikely that they are just wrong. I think that The Virgin Queen and Here I Stand succeed for some players for exactly the same reasons that an entirely different set of players are drawn to Arkham Horror: the players bring the fun to the table themselves, and use the game only as a touchstone. The period of Martin Luther and Elizabeth I is endlessly fascinating and a lot of history geeks know a little to a lot about it, and The Virgin Queen serves up nerdtropes for the knowledgable player to riff on. It’s a vehicle for players to share a historical experience, which is fine, but it’s not really a game in the sense that I understand games. Even by these standards I think The Virgin Queen experience doesn’t really work for the same reasons Arkham Horror doesn’t really work – the historical tidbits it serves up are infrequent and structurally incoherent – but hey, if you want to have some Reformation-period fun and wear an Elizabeth I nametag, there isn’t much else available.

Toledo

Toledo is Martin Wallace’s latest game from Kosmos/Mayfair, and before I played, it was variously described to me as unlike other Martin Wallace games, or what you get when you give Martin Wallace a professional developer. I’m not generally a fan of his games, but a couple friends who are generally much pickier – and who like Wallace games less than I do – liked it, so it came out for a spin.

Toledo is well-put together and a decent game. It’s light but fun. The two-phase game of setting up shops and then collecting materials and manufacturing swords is clever and ensures variety of play (the first phase is admittedly quite short). It feels more solid than a game from Warfrog and is certainly more attractive. But I think I finally figured out at least one big reason why Wallace has such a hard time selling me on his games; I figured this out because by chance I ended up playing Modern Art and Toledo back-to-back.

Themed games like this are about friendly competition, but if that’s all we wanted we’d be playing Go or Bridge. Games are also about entertainment and story-telling, and as such require many of the same elements that other entertainment media require. One important thing is good management of tension, or pacing. We wouldn’t be entertained by a James Bond flick where Bond whacks the henchman in the first 15 minutes, finishes off the big bad gun by the half hour mark, and then spends the remaining 90 minutes rolling up the lower levels of the criminal organization du jour. Or a romantic comedy where the couple gets married in half an hour and spends the rest of the film doing housework.

But this is essentially what Toledo asks us to watch. We’re competing to build swords out of steel and pretty them up with some gems. There are a very small number of extremely high-valued swords that use a decent amount of steel and gems. Then there are a bunch of low-valued swords that use less of each (or are not enhanced with gems at all). The game is a mad scramble to build the couple big-point weapons right away, and then the rest of the game is spent building low-quality swords to fill out a few points. In our games, the players scored 75% or more of their points in the first half of the game.

This is not a reasonable way to manage tension. You want the stakes to increase as the game progresses for a ton of good dramatic and game-play reasons. I can see no good reason to justify stakes getting lower and lower as the game goes on. And yet, this is what many Martin Wallace games do. In Tinner’s Trail, the big points are available on turn 1, not turn 4. In Age of Steam, the high-stakes decisions are made in the first few turns, not at the end where all reason says that they should be. Brass allows the tension to drain out of the game as late-game decisions become less and less relevant.

Compared to the skillfully-managed and escalating tension and pace of a game like Modern Art, the mid-game fall-off in Toledo seems particularly egregious. I actually kinda liked the systems of Toledo. I want to like the game. I even do, sort of. But I can’t help but imagine a so much better game which is basically the same, but where the players start off as apprentices building simpler, lower-scoring swords and work their way up to the big points as they gain skill and experience, instead of doing their masterwork first and then inexplicably settling down to crank out schlock.