48 TINY DECKS (by Tom Russell)

Mary Russell

I remember a game submission we got two or three years ago for a card-driven game. Now, I'm not generally in the habit of discussing submissions that we passed on - spoiler alert, we passed on it - as that can feel rather gauche. Certainly when I was a freelance designer, I would have been disheartened and horrified to read a story from a publisher, and slowly realize that it was one of my games that was being discussed

But I think this is a useful story, so I'm going to go ahead and tell it; details have been changed to protect the innocent. This was a game about the Napoleonic Wars - starting in 1803 and pressing on to Waterloo. Seasonal turns, so a long game. Land, sea, economics, politics. A big, big game. Probably too big for us, but we didn't know that at that time; early on, we went out of our way to look for big projects, and we signed a few before quickly realizing that it wasn't something we were well-suited for. So, that's not why we chose not to sign it.

We chose not to sign it, because it was barely a game. Oh, don't get me wrong. It had rules, and those rules made sense. We didn't detect any loopholes that needed closing, or anything that was wobbly and ambiguous that needed to be made concrete. The set-up information was all intact, and there weren't any of the weird card interaction edge cases you often get with CDGs. But that has less to do with the individual cards, and more to do with how those cards entered the game.

Each season of the game - each turn in this game made up of forty-eight turns - had its own tiny deck of season-specific cards that would be shuffled into the deck at the start of the turn. This effectively resulted in a draw deck that usually had just enough cards to give each player a hand of cards. When these season-specific cards were played, they were removed from the game; when the other cards were played, they were put into a discard pile, to be shuffled in with the new season's specific event cards.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but that is nuts, to the degree that I kinda sorta admire how unapologetically bonkers it is. The idea of playing a game where you know on each turn exactly which cards will be in play - you just don't know which of you will get them, or what order they'll be played in - that could be used to create a fascinating decision space. Not for forty-eight turns, mind you, but as an experiment in form? It could work. If the board state is mutable enough that the "Turn 3 deck" and its contents means something wildly different in this match compared to another? It could work.

Here, it didn't. The point of the thing wasn't to create interesting new possibilities, but to close them off, to keep the thing closely bound to what had happened historically, and when it had happened. Even within each seasonal turn, there were strict restrictions on when a card might be played. You could not, for example, play the Waterloo card until after the Quarte Bras card had been played, because the Battle of Quarte Bras happened before the Battle of Waterloo. You could not have "a" Battle of Waterloo anywhere but Waterloo, and so players had to conform to the preordained historical beats. The situation that faced you in Turn 3 would always be the same, because Turns 1 and 2 always went the same way.

"Historical accuracy is very important to me," said the designer. "I'm not going to fudge things to make a game of it." He wanted players to be able to recreate the battles and campaigns of the era step-by-step, exactly as it had happened, one long chain of events moving inexorably from start to finish.

The problem of course is that wargames aren't really about "recreating" history, but about engaging with it; not about what happened when and in what order, but why and how it happened, and why and how it could have happened differently. That doesn't mean that every game needs to be a wide-open sandbox that allows for a huge range of counterfactuals. Some games are more tightly bound than others, built to provide the same broad strokes each time while allowing the details to differ from one play to another. That feels more appropriate to me for a game about a single battle or campaign, and far less appropriate for a game covering all of the Napoleonic Wars. And that's because a game's openness or "scriptedness" is often a function of its scale and scope, something I touched on last week.

1 comment

  • One of the main features of history is that it didn’t have to happen in the way in which it happens (I suppose there are some people who disagree.)

    Eric Brosius

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