Hamlet’s Hit Points for Boardgamers

I recently finished reading Robin D. Laws’ book Hamlet’s Hit Points. This is a short, highly readable book that I recommend for anyone interested in a little deeper understanding of how these games of ours grab and keep our attention and interest. It’s true that the book is written primarily with role-players in mind, and will be invaluable for game masters, but the concepts and techniques discussed are 100% portable to the realm of boardgames.

The basic idea is this: the conception of narrative that you probably got back in school was one of escalating conflict and tension, followed by a climax and resolution, then denouement. This is also how I tended to think good games should feel. It has a lot of intuitive appeal, especially in the light of various practical problems boardgames usually have. Given that hobbyist games don’t tend to get a ton of replay and mixed experience levels are very common, you’d like to give your players a chance to warm up with some lower-stakes conflicts early before proceeding to the high-stakes endgame. It also serves as a built-in catch-up mechanism since players who make poor choices or have bad luck early can still get back into the game with good moves later.

But as Hamlet’s Hit Points makes clear, while this may be true on the macro level, this misses out on a very important key to how narratives keep and hold your attention during the moment-to-moment action. The book takes three classic plots – Hamlet, Dr. No, and Casablanca – and plots the action on a hope/fear axis. In each moment (or narrative “beat”) your empathy for or feelings about the protagonist or other characters in the narrative are moving somehow: towards hope that things are going to work out well, or towards fear that they are not. Narrative tension relies on skillfully moving back and forth between these drives, not giving you too much hope without an injection of fear, or vice versa. In his analysis of Hamlet – an analysis I agree with – he finds that “down” (towards fear) or “up” (towards hope) beats in the story never cluster together in groups of more than about 3 in a row.

Bearing in mind that everything is obvious once it’s been properly explained, this seems so clearly true, and so useful to GMs, designers, and people just wanting to understand a bit more about games, it’s surprising nobody’s said it before. Maybe they did, they just didn’t have as clever a title or explain it as clearly.
Anyway, this simple concept has a great deal of explanatory power as to why some games work from a narrative perspective and why other, quite similar games don’t.

Before starting, I’ll stipulate a lot of boardgames don’t necessarily succeed or fail based on emotional engagement or narrative. There is a branch of boardgames (let’s call it the Caylus/Age of Steam branch) that fans like because of the pure intellectual challenge, and as such perhaps has more in common with a puzzle than a play or movie. Some players enjoy the lengthy period of frustration followed by the exhilaration of finding a solution. Having said that, let’s also not make the mistake of associating “narrative” strictly with “thematic”, or not looking at how nominally abstract games can engage us emotionally. Many successful abstract games, like the GIPF-series games or the classics like Chess and Go, do work with this pattern of balance between hope and fear.

With these caveats though, looking closely at the hope/fear beats of boardgames shows pretty quickly why some games are so engaging and some are not. I’ll look at a pair of games, one successful, the other not so much: Reiner Knizia’s Lord of the Rings and Arkham Horror.

The turn structure of these cooperative games, which is “do something good”/”do something evil”, is clearly aimed at this modulation. In Lord of the Rings, the fear of what the tile draws from the bag are going to be is quite visceral. Looking at the structure of the events on the boards, which is what drives the fear of those tile draws, usually the events that occur early in each narrative are of the structure “meet some condition to receive a significant reward, otherwise suffer a significant penalty”, which give the players hope for success but fear of failure. Later events tend then to get very bad, but at this point they are balanced against the hope of actually finishing the episode and moving on to the next, when the game reset involved in the episode transition gives the players a large jolt of hope as they move on to face the next challenge. Then when you get a chance to take your turn, you almost always receive clear, immediate, useful rewards that feed your hope of getting out of this mess alive.

So why does Arkham Horror not work as well as Lord of the Rings? If you think about it as an exercise in trying to move between hope and fear in reasonably tight circles, it’s fairly obvious: Arkham Horror neither reliably rewards the characters to give them hope nor does it reliably put them in enough danger to be really fearful. Often you will visit a building with some hope of receiving a useful item or piece of information, but too often the rewards are minor, nonexistent, tangential to what you are trying to achieve, and generally not enough to inspire hope. The Mythos cards rarely have the dimension of meting out rewards or punishment that could inspire hope or fear, they are simply one-off events that the characters too infrequently can’t do anything at all to anticipate, they simply respond. They are also too unreliable in their effects to get into any kind of cycle between hope and fear. An event that is not foreseen with at least some clarity can’t inspire fear. The same thing can be said for character actions: too often there isn’t enough you can do to give you hope, because clues are unavailable, you have to waste time in the hospital to recover health or sanity, and a route towards positive progress is not reliably open. Without some way to reliably make significant forward progress, we are denied the jolt of hope we need to keep interested.

This is not to say Arkham Horror can’t get onto this virtuous cycle; sometimes the cards flow well and the situation develops in an interesting manner. But compared to the well-plotted structure of Lord of the Rings, Arkham Horror is relying on the luck of the draw to get into a good narrative zone. This is obviously not a great way to do this. As board gamers we tend not to like “scripting” in games, but scripting is obviously a mixed blessing. To the degree that it constrains player choice, it’s not great. But narrative needs structure to work. As a recent convert to the GUMSHOE roleplaying system (designed by Robin Laws), I appreciate the book sections in the Esoterrorists book (also in Trail of Cthulhu) where he talks about railroading and the importance of giving the players the illusion of player control while keeping them on the narrative straight and narrow. These things are not contradictory.

While the comparison between Arkham Horror and Lord of the Rings is clear, you can see the logic here in tons of boardgames. For me, the difference between Dominion and Thunderstone in that Dominion is a fairly linear procession, while Thunderstone has some of this modulation. The flow of monsters up from the depths of the dungeon obviously helps. If you think of breach effect, traps, and treasures as hope/fear modulators and amplifiers, they make a lot of sense. Crucially, by giving you a set of characters with at least some personality that you can hope will advance in level and get more powerful while being afraid that they will die, Thunderstone helps you get invested in the game and actually feel something. Dominion gives you nothing.
There are plenty of other good examples in thematic games. Small World, where hope spring eternal when you draft a new race – and the personalization of the races and powers make a huge difference in our being able to identify with them – but gives way to fear as the race reaches the end of its rope and it becomes incredibly fragile in decline. Agricola is another classic manipulator, catching you between fear of starvation and ruin and the hopes that you have to build your farm, and thinking in these terms its tremendous popularity is easily explained. Classic games like Dune, Civilization, Titan, or Republic of Rome operate on longer time scales, but have amplified peaks and troughs of hope and fear, as anyone who has stared at their opponent across a combat wheel in a high-stakes battle in Dune can attest. Traditional games like Risk give you a lot of hope on your turn as your armies rampage across the board but then leave you to be very afraid of what your opponents are going to do to you once you pass the dice.

When you think about it terms of hope and fear, the visceral appeal of card driven wargames, especially the good ones like Hannibal, Successors, and Paths of Glory are likewise easily explained. Even titles which may not be as solid on game system merits (like Labyrinth or Twilight Struggle) can nonetheless be compelling because of the way they are always jerking you between hope for the cards you are holding and fear of what your opponent is going to do to you. Similarly, block games like Rommel in the Desert and EastFront manage this hope/fear balance, as they have the players playing in an environment of scarce information which is revealed in fits and starts, sometimes answering questions, sometimes creating new problems for you to grapple with, and giving you plenty of room to create your own hopes and fears.

Being about RPGs, one challenge that boardgames face that Hamlet’s Hit Points doesn’t talk about is how a narrative can keep this structure of hope and fear going when you play the game 5, 10, 15 times and know the general contours of the experience. This is not as much of an obstacle as you might think. The source narratives Laws analyzes are plays and movies which have survived a fair amount of repeat viewing. These emotional experiences the narrative aims to evoke are fundamentally manipulative. If you succeed the first time you can probably do it again.

This sort of modulation is obviously not the only way that narratives can be compelling. As mentioned in the book, rules are made to be broken, and some of our most compelling art comes from rules-breaking. But the lessons of Hamlet’s Hit Points are extremely powerful as a tool to understanding what makes games tick.


Conquest of the Empire II, Friedrich, Twilight Struggle Update

Conquest of the Empire II is more or less the usual Risk-descended empire-building thing, which should be pretty familiar by now: build up your armies, beat on your neighbors, and whine a lot that you aren’t winning. When this sort of game works for me, it tends to be because it does two things: it has very good thematic flavor, and it forces the players to take an active stance if they want to win (instead of just beating up whoever is winning at the time). The gold standard here for me is still Avalon Hill’s Successors. It would be nice if that game were simpler, but still, the flavorful cards and armies, and the multifaceted victory conditions, make for a fun game with lots of action.

On the flavor front, Conquest of the Empire II is decidedly weird in a number of ways. Take army movement. One of our players was sitting in Greece, wanting to invade Egypt. Being a logical type, this involved looking up the amphibious assault rules and figuring them out. We realized, though, that it turned out to be a lot easier to go up the coast of the Adriatic, turn right at the Danube, follow the Black Sea through the Bosporus and Asia until you get to the mountains, hang a right down the Levant coast, and then cross the Nile into Egypt. Army movement in a turn is unlimited, you see. Once you’ve gotten there, however, the process of taking the place over becomes excruciating, with a turn spent forcing a battle, then a turn and $10 spent converting a control chip, another turn and another $10 spent on another chip, then another $10 and another turn (Egypt had a half-dozen control chips at this time)… it’s a strange juxtaposition of the lightning-fast with the molasses-slow. And all the defender has to do to protect his control is kick in another lone infantry unit, which is not forced to attack you, but which you must spend a whole new action eliminating.

I must admit I was also a bit disappointed by the whole Alliance process, borrowed from Struggle of Empires. Each turn the players break themselves down into two alliances through a bidding process, and then can only attack the players in the other alliance. I was hoping that this would serve to help mix things up a bit, and force a little action. But in practice it doesn’t, really. Combat in Conquest of the Empire is of the highly-attritional Risk style, where the number of losses you are going to inflict is fairly proportional to the number of guys you bring (which doesn’t seem very appropriate to the time period in question). So it’s the usual thing, two players beat on each other, they both take a lot of losses while realizing little upside (see above), and their neighbor comes in and cleans up the remainder. Nobody does anything because they’re afraid of the ensuing casualties. In practice, the Alliance structure offers only minimal restraint on the bash-the-leader game, and no incentive for action whatsoever.

So, Conquest of the Empire II flunks the two critical tests for this sort of game, for me personally. There is stuff in here that is interesting – I like the action cards (although, as usual, they seem terribly unbalanced), I like the tax rules, I like the money pressure, and the plastic bits are pleasing. But for me, none of this stuff matters if the game can’t get in the front door; in order to be worthwhile in this category, a game has to be at least as systemically sound as the chronically under-rated Risk, and in my opinion, Conquest of the Empire II is not.

After the disappointment with Conquest of the Empire, I decided to try to play Friedrich again. My experience this time was both better and worse than my previous play. The first two hours were great and highly enjoyable, even more than last time, even though I was playing Russia and not the obviously interesting Prussian position. Resources were tight, and everyone was under pressure, facing constant tough tactical decisions about when and where to strike (the use of the suits in the card deck is inspired), when to build up, and how to coordinate (for the Allies). If the game had ended somewhere in there, I could give the game 5 stars out of 5 without reserveration. But it didn’t, and then the endgame dragged on … and on … and on. Well past its best-before date.

I think the issue here is not specifically that the game is too long, but the hugely-variable endgame event deck. Said deck has 18 cards. 12 of them are minor flavor-type events, ranging from “no effect” to fairly trivial benefits or annoyances for various players. The other 6 are huge, major, game-shaking events, which either knock entire nations out of the game, or seriously hammer them. The Prussian player is trying to hold on until these external political factors knock out enough of their opponents. The first game we played, we drew 9 minor cards without drawing a single major event (Prussia was crushed). Second time, we again drew about 9 cards before drawing a single major event; when we finally did, it was the one (of 6) that actually hammers Prussia (Prussia was again crushed). Neither game saw a single ally defect, so Prussia was still a long way from the goal line, and in both cases the ultimate result was fairly evident for several turns before the end.

I really want to like Friedrich; the early game generates quite considerable goodwill. But when the game goes long, I really don’t think the endgame works – there are problems with the play-balance, problems retaining game tension, and mechanical problems (players accumulate huge piles of worthless cards late, as at least one suit is worthless to each Ally). Fortunately, I think the event deck just needs some Union Pacific-style deck-stacking to make the endgame more robust. My initial, simplistic thought is that when I play again, I’ll suggest randomly removing 6 of the minor event cards from the deck before shuffling in the major events. Nobody that I’ve talked to has exactly been claiming that Prussia wins too often, so this should accelerate the game, making it more likley to see a decent number of interesting events and less likely to see Prussia on life support for too many turns.

Before we leave Friedrich entirely, another minor comment: it should be mentioned that this game is pretty worthless for competitive play. You really have to consider any “allied” victory as a basically a team win rather than individual victory; Prussia has all the control here, their play will almost always choose which of the allies wins if they aren’t going to. I don’t consider this a major problem, just something to bear in mind.

As for Twilight Struggle, it’s interesting that my recent review brought out comments from both sides, some saying they were happy to see my positive review while others though I was being a bit negative. I told a few correspondants that if they were getting mixed messages, that seemed about right.

After playing again, I’m still on the fence, sort of. There is enough to like in the game. But there is a bit too much micro-management too – how easy is it to get really screwed because you forgot to fulfill the fairly arbitrary military ops requirement until it’s too late? – and given the very large impact of luck on the game, the depth-to-time-investment ratio is not terrific. I like it, but as I’ve said about so many games, it’s also not hard to wish it were better. Ultimately, like Wilderness War it’s probably fun to play for a while but not a long-term keeper.

Twilight Struggle

This review was a difficult one to write, in the main because figuring out who the audience is for Twilight Struggle is modestly tricky. Conceptually, it lies somewhere in difficult terrain between German-style social games and American-style wargames, where it is surrounded by Memoir ’44 (towards the German end) and Hammer of the Scots (towards the American end); but because it’s not cleanly a part of an identifiable genre, it makes comparisons difficult. Another difficulty in fairly evaluating Twilight Struggle is my rocky personal experience recently with GMT and inexperienced designers. As a game company, GMT is incredibly hit-or-miss for me because they don’t do consistent development work, the one thing we have come to expect from a game company these days, and the one thing that is critical for many designers. So, when they have a talented and scrupulous designer or a good designer-developer team, GMT has given us some great stuff (Rick Young and Jesse Evan’s Europe Engulfed, Lee Brimmicombe-Wood’s Downtown, or anything by Vance VonBorries or Mark Simonitch). When they don’t, we get 30 Years War, Empire of the Sun, or The Napoleonic Wars, games which range from the dysfunctional to simply having an unacceptable amount of errata.

Twilight Struggle is set in the Cold War years of 1946-1989-ish, with the Soviet Union and America squaring off for world domination. Despite its obviously wargamey heritage, Twilight Struggle is easiest to describe as an old-fashioned area-control eurogame. The world is divided into countries, and these countries are grouped into regions. Players allocate influence to control countries, and control of these countries then dictates control of regions. Some countries (“Battleground” countries, like Israel, Iraq, the Koreas, Cuba, and Venezuela) are more important than others and worth points on their own, and the way to dominate a region is to control both more countries than your opponent and more of the battleground countries.

Influence is put on the board through card play. Each card in the deck of 110 cards has an activation rating of 1-4, which is how much influence you can play. To spice things up, though, each card also comes with a famous event of the Cold War: from the Marshall Plan through We Will Bury You to Tear Down This Wall. Each event is typically associated with one power or the other: the Marshall Plan, for example, is an American event. If you play a card to place influence, and the event on the card belongs to your opponent, he gets to do it. If you play a card with one of your own events, you must choose between the event and the influence. While the choice of how to play a card with your own event is usually fairly straightforward (most of the events are of the type that add or subtract some influence somewhere), the choices of how to dispose of your opponent’s events are usually more interesting. Usually the damage from events like Nasser or Reagan Bombs Libya can be mitigated, but sometimes you really need the influence now, and sometimes you have a hand full of your opponent’s events, and need to enter serious damage-control mode. As you look at the hand of cards you are faced with, you really need to plan, to figure out how much influence you need, and to decided which events can be played when for maximum or minimum impact.

The most important cards in this respect are the scoring cards, one for each region of the world (which older eurogamers will probably be unable to resist calling “Wertung” cards). If you have one (or more) of these in your hand, you’ll have to play it at some time during the turn, triggering scoring of the named region. Obviously, this can be good or bad, and the uncertainty about scoring is what gives the game a lot of its tension. Does the influence your opponent is pouring into Asia mean he or she is planning to score there? Or is it just coincidental? And can you get some more influence into the Middle East without telegraphing your own scoring card, drawing a response you can’t handle?

There are some more interesting details like country stability (stable countries are harder to control but much harder to wrest from enemy control, while low-stability countries topple if you look at them funny), coups which are a risky way to get influence into a country quickly, and realignment, which provides a “domino effect” by allowing nearby countries to influence their neighbors, all of which serve to give the game some tactical depth.
As you can see, Twilight Struggle has a lot of good and interesting stuff in it. Nontheless, it would be easy to write a lukewarm review for the game. The first problem is that Twilight Struggle could easily be thrown in the ring with classic German-style area-control games (or their variants) like El Grande or Blue Moon, against which it is not going to fare that well. Twilight Struggle is longish at 3 hours or so, and simply lacks the subtlety, depth or tension of El Grande. Blue Moon or Beowulf are similar “efficiency”-type games, where you are trying to use your cards to win a lot of competitions by a little and lose a few competitions by a lot, but both pack a lot more gaming punch into much smaller packages (and Beowulf even features a theme as good as, and probably even better than, Twilight Struggle).

OK, fair enough, so maybe Twilight Struggle should really be evaluated as a wargame? But here too we run into trouble. Twilight Struggle takes as long to play as (if not longer than) classics like Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage, and certainly doesn’t have anything like the depth and tension of that game. It doesn’t fare well going up against low-end Columbia classics like War of 1812 or Hammer of the Scots either, being both longer (much longer in the case of War of 1812) and less efficient with our gaming time by providing a significantly lower density of interesting game choices. And Twilight Struggle certainly lacks both the depth and historical flavor of “true” wargames like Rommel in the Desert, Squad Leader, Ardennes ’44, Breakout: Normandy, EastFront, or Paths of Glory.

I should mention too that GMT is not making things easier with their by-now-typical productions problems: the scoring summary on the reference card is wrong, the DefCon track has a critical omission, the setup has a major omission, the player aid sheets have blank space and yet manage to be incomplete (a correct summary of how to control a region would be nice), and we have a fascinating new country called “Chili”. And the retail price ($57) is too high – although who pays retail for wargames these days?

But at the end of the day, I did rather like Twilight Struggle, and I think both of these comparisons are wrong. The niche that Twilight Struggle occupies is, I think, the “American-style” game. In terms of current games, it’s up against the likes of Fantasy Flight, Eagle, Warfrog, and maybe Z-Man or Phalanx before its mid-life crisis: games like War of the Ring, Parthenon, Struggle of Empires, and Conquest of the Empire II. While it’s going to get beat up here on components in most cases, especially considering the price (it contains precisely zero detailed plastic models, despite being at the same price point as War of the Ring), from both a gameplay and flavor standpoint it trounces these games while arguably being simpler, rules-wise, and in a field of terribly over-long games Twilight Struggle’s playing time turns into an asset instead of a liability. While I still have some underlying uncertainties about the balance of Twilight Struggle (both in terms of play and game balance), things are in much better shape than these games, in general.

The questioning reader may be asking at this point whether this is just an exercise in pointless gerrymandering. Can I really give Twilight Struggle a thumbs-up just by moving it into a category dominated by lousy, underdeveloped games? And that’s a fair question. I think there are a significant number of readers who will play this game and be unimpressed, immediately going back to Hannibal, Rommel in the Desert, Hammer of the Scots, El Grande, or Blue Moon. But if you wanted to like War of the Ring but couldn’t, quite (or at least not as much as everyone else did), or find yourself always tempted by but slightly dissatisfied with Warfrog or Eagle games, I think Twilight Struggle will fit the bill. The game has a very nice historical fun factor, especially for those who personally remember some of the events in the deck. The game really does grasp the grand sweep of the Cold War – you start with an empty board and the Marshall Plan, work your way through Sputnik going “beep … beep … beep” and influence and coup your way through 50 years of closely-fought competition to a congested board and The Iron Lady. By the time it is done, maybe you won, maybe you got hosed by the cards, but you feel like you’ve been through something – the game has had a momentum and an ebb and flow that is interesting in and of itself. Capturing this sort of dynamic can really breathe life into a game, and is surprisingly rare in this category of games – the absence of it in games like Wallenstein, Parthenon, Antike, Conquest of the Empire II, or the new Arkham Horror is probably what ultimately condemns those games for me, while its presences in Beowulf or Lord of the Rings is remarkable. Whatever it is, exactly, Twilight Struggle’s got it. This is combined with an underlying game that, while not strong enough to compete with true German games, is strong enough to do the job. There is tension in the card choices, and enough tactical depth in developing networks of controlled countries to satisfy the gamer.

This leads me to the best comparison I have: this is a very similar game in style to Histogames’ (and soon Rio Grande’s) Friedrich. While they are different stylistically, they are both low-complexity games built on top of very German-ish engines. They both are wedged in somewhere between euros and wargames, trying to emphasize historical flavor. They are both games of card efficiency. For me personally, Twilight Struggle manages a few things that Friedrich couldn’t quite: keeping the playtime under control (if just barely), keeping the density of interesting decisions higher, better capturing the historical flavor, and generally condensing the play to give a better feel of historical sweep. I like both games, but while Friedrich couldn’t quite grab me, Twilight Struggle did.

2008 Addenda: While I enjoyed Twilight Struggle for a time, ultimately it got kicked out of my collection and if I were to write this review today, I’d be somewhat less positive. I think what has turned out to really hurt the game are serious questions about play-balance. With Twilight Struggle, there are a few little systemic details that bug me – it’s a little long, realignment doesn’t quite work, there are too many high-stakes, low-control die rolls, it’s thematically a little weak – but what really killed the game for us was the literally endless string of crushing Soviet victories.