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Barriers (by Tom Russell)

Mary Russell

I was pleasantly surprised that a number of folks were able to get Table Battles on the table within a few hours or minutes of receiving it, and that it seems to be hitting those tables frequently and enthusiastically. It's not that I think the game shouldn't be hitting tables regularly; I think it’s one of my strongest pieces of design, particularly on a mechanical level. So of course I think people should play it. I think people should play all of my games: that's what they're there for. But even something that's proven to be as popular as, for example, Supply Lines of the American Revolution: The Northern Theater, 1775-1777, usually doesn't hit the table until a few days or weeks after it arrives. 

Of course, Supply Lines has about twelve pages of rules, takes about three hours to play, and has a half-sheet of counters to punch out. Table Battles, on the other hand, has only three pages of rules, plays in under half-an-hour, and the only assembly required is opening a ziploc bag and sliding a band off the pack of cards. Though the game can be hard to play well, it's not hard to learn or to understand, and doesn't have rule 5.4, "Moving Supplies by Sea", with two exceptions to the general procedure regarding Nova Scotia and Quebec. 

Table Battles can more-or-less be played right out of the box. It's a game with almost no barriers. It doesn't give you any reason not to play it. Whereas a game like Supply Lines gives you reasons to put it off; maybe you need another read-through of the rules, maybe you don't have three hours to set aside, maybe your spouse doesn't feel like protecting her supply train from New York to Cambridge right now, but can be persuaded to spend fifteen or twenty minutes chucking some dice and obliterating sticks. 

Now, when I say that Supply Lines has barriers, I don't mean it as a knock on the game which, as you might expect, I'm rather fond of. Barriers in and of themselves aren't bad things! Almost all games have some barrier to entry. Supply Lines may have more barriers than Table Battles, but it has less than many other wargames (even simple and introductory ones), which in turn have less than, say, Case Blue

But there are barriers and then there are barriers. My original version of Supply Lines had thirty turns instead of twelve. The game still took about three hours to play, but the pace of it was very slow and aggregative. The core of the game was there, but it was harder to conceptualize and to experience: it was a very cutthroat game even then, but instead of a sharp straight razor, each player was handed a worn-out plastic disposable razor. It was hard for players (and prospective publishers) to see what I saw in the game; the decision space was needlessly obfuscated.

Once I had reorganized the sequence of play into twelve turns containing alternating impulses, however, it allowed for sudden reversals, devious traps, and "big" decisive moves that could quickly alter the entire decision space. The cat-and-mouse aspect really sprung to life once the game got out of its own way, once that barrier was removed.

Scott Muldoon said something very, very kind about my work recently - that they tend to focus on a handful of ideas and then cut away everything that does not support them. And I think that's a very good way to describe my general game design philosophy. The game has to have a point of view, has to be about something, and the game designer's job is to communicate that something as effectively as possible, without unnecessary barriers. A barrier might be the pacing (as it was with the earliest version of Supply Lines), it might be the density of the ruleset, it might be the "fiddliness" of the mechanisms.

Again, barriers in and of themselves aren't bad - they're a fact of this gaming life - it's just the barriers that are unnecessary that need removing.


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