Years ago I wanted to do a big, complicated game about the Thirty Years War, and spent some time immersing myself in the topic. I eventually decided that my ambitions far outpaced my abilities, and chose somewhat lower-hanging fruit instead, which has worked out pretty well for me. But still the topic fascinates me, and from time to time I've circled back and dipped my toe in those waters, only to jump right back out.
"The Ratification of the Treaty of Münster, 15 May 1648", Gerard Terborch, 1848, oil on copper.
But the last time I did it, I became especially fascinated with the end of the war. Really, by the time they hit the twenty-year mark, pretty much everyone was looking to extract themselves from this awful, bloody mess. Serious peace negotiations began as early as 1643, and would not be concluded until five years later. Given that there were 109 separate delegations involved, each pursuing separate agendas, that's no surprise.
But it wasn't as if the bloodshed stopped when the talks began. Instead, the two things ran concurrently. Success on the battlefield could strengthen one's bargaining position sufficiently that they might be able to insist on more concessions and territorial gains. Being acutely aware of this, diplomats who were negotiating from a weaker position would drag their feet in hopes that a military reversal could earn them a better deal, thus prolonging the war.
It occurred to me that while I couldn't quite find a way to cover the whole complicated and bloody conflict, I could easily do a game exploring that dynamic, an asymmetric negotiation game with a light military element. And so sometime last summer I started pulling together notes and ideas for a game called Westphalia.
My process when designing a game usually involves putting a lid back on an idea and letting it simmer until I have a clear picture of what I want the game to be. Only then do I start putting together the rules and the bits and commence testing, and development continues until the game looks like that initial picture.
"Dutch Envoy Adriaan Pauw entering Münster in 1646 for Peace Negotiations", Gerard Terborch, 1646, oil on canvas.
It took quite a while for the picture to come together in this case, or rather, it took me quite a while to accept what I was seeing. Because the picture that was forming was of a game with seven factions, and I couldn't see a way to make it work with less than seven. With seven, the sides served as checks on one another - enforcing a delicate and precarious balance. Remove even one of them, and the whole thing collapsed.
That's not a problem from a design standpoint, but commercially, that's a very tough sell. How often are you going to end up with a group of exactly seven players? Most multiplayer games go up to five or six, and most gaming groups top out at five or six. Heck, Volko Ruhnke's COIN series, probably the go-to in modern asymmetrical multiplayer wargaming, usually only has four factions. Seven? Seven is nuts.
I very, very briefly considered taking a page from the COIN book and commissioning someone to do some kind of flowchart bot, but for one thing, I don't really like bots, and for another, I can't see how a bot could possibly work in a negotiation game. The decision space is dominated by figuring out how much something is worth - how much it's worth to you, how much it's worth to someone else, and how to bridge that gap. Those aren't the kind of calculations that a flow-chart can make reliably and interestingly.
So, I can't get rid of any of the factions, and I can't set up "dummy" players when a group is short. That really only leaves me one option, and that's to "double-up" some players, giving them two factions to play when the vagaries of the player count dictate. And yes, that's workable, I suppose, and will allow the game to see the table more often. But it does require some modifications to the base rules that will give it a different feel and emphasis. It will be a version of my Westphalia, but it won't be the "real" game, in much the same way that a pan-and-scan version of a cinemascope film can be a passable approximation of the experience, yet will always be "less than".
"Taking of Breisach", Jusepe Leonardo, 1635, oil on canvas. The Spanish capture of Breisach by the Duke of Feria in 1633.
The thing that gets me though is that I know that by providing rules for playing with fewer folks, I'm almost guaranteeing that that will be the way that most people will play it. We have plenty of games in our collection that seat from two to five or three to six, and we almost never bother with the max player counts. If Westphalia seats seven and only seven, then folks who want to play it will have to play it with seven; it's "appointment gaming", something you plan for. You're not getting together on Saturday to play games, but to play Westphalia. That dramatically and drastically lessens its ability to get on the table, and by correlation the number of people who will actually buy it, but it preserves and protects the intended experience and decision space. Scaling it down, so that it seats four to seven, makes it much more accessible, and much easier to justify purchasing, but it all but ensures that most gamers will never actually play the game that I designed. It's like I'm shooting Ben-Hur in cinemascope with the knowledge that almost everyone is going to watch it on their cell phones.As you can tell, I'm of two minds about the thing. Right now, the "doubling-up" rules are there and are intended to be part of the final game. As much as we talk about making weird games for a niche market, it is still a market, and I'm quite cognizant of the fact that I'm not making art objects to be admired, but products. The things are meant to be sold - it's hard for us to make a living otherwise! - and to be played. I don't want to make something that will just sit on the shelf, waiting for the stars to align.