Mary Russell

I was talking with someone last week about my game Optimates et Populares. This is the game where I first used the political will "teeter-totter" mechanism that also powers This Guilty Land and The Vote. I'm proud of that mechanism, and of the design in general. I set out to capture (in very broad strokes) the political processes of the late Roman Republic - how they functioned, and also how in the face of hyper-partisan class conflict, they ceased functioning - and I think I did that. Consuls act like Consuls, Tribunes like Tribunes. For its scale and level of detail, the thing is accurate and demonstrates the political deadlock that led to a series of civil wars.

It is accurate, but it's not particularly evocative. The game is mostly deterministic, almost combinatorial. It feels stately. Intellectual. Orderly. Predictable. And none of those are words that anyone would associate with the bloody, generations-long death spiral that ended the Roman Republic. There's plenty of process in the game, but there's no blood.

It doesn't feel dangerous and capricious, doesn't ask players to seize opportunities and brace themselves for unexpected misfortunes. Instead, it plays out as a sort of political chess match, which hardly feels appropriate for a period in which politics became a literal bloodsport.

Shortly after the game's release, I became acutely aware of this defect, and going into This Guilty Land, I was very eager to correct it. Even though players are embodying abstract forces, acting at a remove, they are acting opportunistically, taking advantage of events that are hard to predict, and that flow into the game in swingy, unpredictable ways. The game feels less ordered and more chaotic, and thus more evocative of that particular period.

I'm not, mind you, arguing for swingy chaos as a shorthand for evocative (though history as it is lived, moment-to-moment, often does feel like that!). Erin Escobedo's Meltwater for example plays very much like an abstract, with each move having deterministic, predictable results. But in that game, it evokes the inevitable and inexorable: it creates a sense of disquiet and doom that is integral to the argument she is making and the atmosphere she wants to capture.

With Optimates et Populares, I was accurate in terms of simulating processes but failed to evoke the period. And I think in some ways evocation is more important, or, to put it another way, that it is another kind of accuracy. It's not enough that a game's model be right; it also has to feel right. These are, after all, things made for humans by humans. And commercial wargames in particular (as opposed to their professional military counterparts) are a way for those humans to engage with the history; it's hard for humans to do that when the game doesn't give them something human to engage with.


  • In games as in movies, when choosing between accuracy and the cliche, choose the cliche, if you want to get customers, that is.

    Bernie Brightman

  • Years ago I designed Red Guard, the first (and still only) game on the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Up to six players representing factions within the Chinese Communist Party, People’s Liberation Army, government etc. vied with each other to gain and keep control of political power centres.
    It was a chaotic game, with lots of random forces falling in and out of play while Chairman Mao danced randomly above the tumult like an aging and ill soap bubble. When he popped the game was over (unless players had forced the game into a second overt civil war).
    I likened the Cultural Revolution to a game of Musical Chairs played by a hundred million people in a gigantic room, except that the room was pitch black, people could hit each other over the head with the chairs and the martial music did not stop for ten years.
    Was this game accurate? Who can tell; it does pick out certain events and trends within this tremendously complex struggle and give game analogs to their effects.
    Was it evocative? I should think so; my intention was to instil a sense of chaos and confusion in players’ minds – not about the game’s rules, which are simple enough, but to create a chaotic mental atmosphere. I seem to have succeeded in this, according to some commenters on BGG who found it too much for them to enjoy, even as a game.

    Brian Train

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