FAIR (by Tom Russell)

Mary Russell

A couple weeks ago someone asked me about a set-up rule in one of my games, the rule being designed to confer to one side or the other a slight advantage at the beginning of the game. And this person was wondering why that was. Just as easily, the game could be set-up so as to confer no advantage to either side. Wouldn't that be more fair? 

And yes, it would be, but I had no interest in the thing ever being "fair". Partially this is because exploiting or overcoming that advantage is what gives the first turn or two its special flavor. But really, this extended beyond the initial decision space, because the entire game was about building, maintaining, exploiting, and reversing the leverage one player has over the other. Many of my designs are easy for players to distort, creating feedback loops that widen leads over time, and make them harder to reverse. None of that is "fair", or meant to be. I'm not the least bit interested in "fair".

"I'm not the least bit interested in 'fair'."

And, you know, I've talked around that subject - I've nattered on about things like tempo and momentum and leverage and deadlock and pressure over the course of what seems to be dozens of these blog articles - but it wasn't until someone asked me, "this isn't really fair, is it?", that it actually occurred to me, and that I was able to verbalize it: I'm not the least bit interested in "fair"

That's not to say that I'm in favor of a game that's one-sided. Whether it's a game like Optimates et Populares or Supply Lines of the American Revolution: The Northern Theater, 1775-1777, in which the player positions are quite asymmetrical, or symmetrical multiplayer games like For-Ex and Iberian Gauge, I try to give all players ample opportunities to either make mistakes or exploit them. If you're on the receiving end, it's your own fault for putting yourself into that situation, and the game doesn't help you up when you get knocked down. In fact, it makes it easier for the other guy to keep hammering on you. My games are balanced dynamically, built and primed to become lopsided at a moment's notice: blink and you'll be destroyed.

"From a creative standpoint, I wish I had stuck to my guns"

And that, for me, is really interesting and really compelling, as both a designer and a player. To a degree, it always has been, though I wasn't always aware of it. One of my rare eurogames to find a publisher (it never made it to market) was originally built along these lines and with these things in mind. The publisher wanted radical changes to make the game less fragile ("close games can be fun for all as everyone feels they have a chance") and less mean ("avoid as many negative feelings as possible"). Due to some communication errors, I didn't actually understand that he was trying to adapt the game for what he saw as a broader market, and was initially quite stubborn. Eventually I got on board, for all the good it did me. Being in the position now where I couldn't care less about catering to a broader audience, I think the game was stronger in its original form. From a creative standpoint, I wish I had stuck to my guns rather than let the publisher do violence to the design.

But I certainly understood the economic realities that factored into his decision and don't begrudge him that. There's a very good reason why people don't publish a lot of weird, fragile games (particularly in the wargames space), and that's because the appeal is rather niche. I think that niche is growing; it's larger now that it was when I started designing board games, to be sure. That makes me wonder sometimes if Hollandspiele would have taken off the way it did, and reached the people it did, if we had launched two or three years earlier; I wonder now if that publisher even would have left that game intact.


  • The ultimate fair games are those like chess and checkers, where both sides are identical and the game board is the same for both sides. Yet these types of games don’t interest me like historical games. Wargames aren’t fair in the chess and checkers way, each side has different qualities and quantities. That’s fine with me. A historical situation that’s lopsided, where one side is going to get clobbered, provides a challenge, and that ok with me too. It’s not fair, (victory conditions can make game play fair even in historical mismatches), but that’s the richness of historical gaming.

    John Theissen

  • Thanks for the support and for the thoughtful comment, Rahn – a lot to chew on there!

    Tom Russell

  • That’s why I love your games!

    I’m on the lookout for games that reward skilful play (even if this means they can be punishing). I also enjoy trying to balance on the knife’s edge. The tension of walking the tightrope with the abyss all around you and the other player’s doing their best to knock you off balance.

    I’ve wrriten a little bit more about what I like in games and why on my Board Game Geek profile if anyone wants to have a look: https://boardgamegeek.com/user/TumbleSteak

    Also I agree that this is a niche and that it is widening. All of these things discussed are also hallmarks of a Splotter game (another favourite publisher of mine). The critical reception of Food Chain Magnate and the unexpectedly large number of print runs they needed to do to keep up with demand show that the appetite for this type of game is growing. It will definitely never be for everyone because it’s very confrontation and can be demoralising on the losing side if you don’t have an attitude of “Well, I got smashed, but this has taught me what not to do next game”. They are also games that don’t survive well in cult of the new culture where we only play a game once and move on. They take many plays to learn the pitfalls and the strategies. I’m so grateful that you have built a business model that allows you to take a chance on these niche games. Because I need more of them! I’m tired of the multiplayer solitaire standard Euro fair!

    Out of a scale of 100% maximum enjoyment, the best games I’ve ever had to score the 100% would be those where I beat a superior opponent at such a challenging and punishing game. Then coming in at 95% would be losing to those superior opponents in such a game but being dragged up to compete at their level and learning a lot from the game. Then 90% would be beating an equally matched opponent at such a game. Somewhere down around 60 or 70% is getting an easy win in a game that doesn’t have these features.

    Also a vote that you should think about brushing off that unfair Euro and seeing if you can turn it into a HollandSpiele game. I think there would be a lot of interest from your Infamous Traffic and For-Ex customers.


Leave a Comment