Mary Russell

In my younger and more vulnerable years, a publisher gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since. At that time I thought I was a eurogame designer, and I had a eurogame under contract with said publisher. Never mind the game - it never came out - and never mind the publisher - they're not really active anymore. 

The publisher had been very excited about the game, though, and naturally being a designer with exactly zero published games at that time, I was likewise excited about it. A few weeks later, though, they had me meet them at a convention, and they had some bad news. "After a few more plays, the game isn't as polished as I thought it was. I'm pretty disappointed, actually," and here he gave me a look which made it feel like it was some moral failing on my part, like I had tricked him by submitting a bad game. I pressed him for more details, and he said, well, it looks like there's a runaway leader problem. 

In this game, there were four rounds of scoring, with each round promising more points than the round before it. The problem they were having is that if the same player came out on top in every round - if they played better than the other players - they would win the game and by a large margin. Now, if someone told me this today, I would respond with something along the lines of "yes, that's the game" and "the other players should try being good at the game", but back then, I lacked both the confidence in, and awareness of, my sensibilities necessary to articulate this so plainly. So I kinda talked around it, stumbling toward asking the publisher why this was a problem. 

And that's when I got that bit of advice. "Games should have close scores, so everyone feels like they have a chance to win right up until the end of the game. That makes them feel good! You want them to feel good, because that's the point of the game, after all. They might only play it once, and you want them to be able to recommend it to their friends. They won't do that if they had a bad experience. When you have close scores, you have no hurt feelings." 

I nodded at this kinda dimly. It wasn't what I wanted out of games, but it made a kind of sense, and after all, they were a publisher who had been in the business for a few years, while I was very green: obviously they knew what they were talking about. Compounding this was the keenly-felt and perhaps universal desperation of someone on the outside trying to get in. I wanted to get games published, lots of games. The whole plan after all was to build up my reputation as a designer to the point where Mary and I could trade on that to publish our own eurogames, and from that make a full-time living. 

So I was very eager to listen to that advice and to follow the publisher's lead. The rewards for victory were made more modest, and the consequences for bad play were eliminated. I'm not going to dig into all the specific things that were changed and why, but suffice it to say that the final scores got much closer, with the games typically decided by a couple of points. No one quite knew who was going to win. 

The problem is that no one quite cared, either. Without rewards for good play and consequences for bad, it didn't really feel like the decisions players made mattered. There was no tension, no pressure to keep the other players in check, no impetus to bail the water out of one's own sinking ship. The game that remained was pleasant, and I cannot think of anything more unpleasant. 

If the game had been published, I'm convinced that it would've sunk like a stone - even in its neutered version, the game would've been too weird to gain traction in the broader market, and the publisher wasn't exactly an industry leader. If by some strange confluence of circumstances it had been published and had sold well, it would have been a familiar story: it would've sold well for a few weeks, folks would've played it once or twice and then recommend it to people who would also play it once or twice, and then everyone would move onto the next thing. The scores would be close, and there'd be no hurt feelings, mostly because there would be no feelings at all. The game that protects against bad feelings also protects you from good ones; games that cannot frustrate you cannot excite you, just as a heart that cannot be hurt cannot be loved.


  • I think we feel the same about this. You’ve articulated it well; our famous quote is often misinterpreted somewhat…

    Jeroen Doumen

  • “It would’ve sold well for a few weeks, folks would’ve played it once or twice and then recommend it to people who would also play it once or twice, and then everyone would move onto the next thing. The scores would be close, and there’d be no hurt feelings, mostly because there would be no feelings at all.”

    I… I love you.

    Scott Muldoon

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