FROM THE ARCHIVES: 2P (by Tom Russell)

Mary Russell

I came to wargames somewhat sideways. I had initially operated under the delusion that I was the designer of mid-weight eurogames, only dipping my toe in the hex-and-counter pool as a lark, only to find, to my surprise and delight, that these waters were more agreeable to my peculiar talents. One wargame sold, and then another, and soon I stopped trying to hawk my eurogames altogether so that I could focus on wargames exclusively. 

Do I miss the euro-style games? Not really. I wasn't very good at designing them, to be honest. Partially this was because I spent considerable time and effort trying to flatten out my idiosyncrasies, and the result was often too bland to really stand out. But it wouldn't have worked if I had left my games weird, either, because there's no way that they'd appeal to a broad enough audience to warrant publication.

I would say if I missed anything at all, it would be the player counts. Most euro-style games are built to seat up to four, five, or six players, and I was fond of exploring different group dynamics. While there have been multiplayer wargames, of necessity most tend to be two-player contests. And, don't get me wrong; it's actually much easier to design, develop, and playtest a two-player game than one that sits up to six. You don't need to worry about special adjustments for a three-hander versus a four, you don't have to worry about whether or not you have enough tests at a particular player count, and you don't need to worry about getting people to show up for playtest night. Heck, if you're mostly designing two-player games, you don't really need to worry about scheduling a playtest night at all. Instead of seeing our friends every week, we see them here and there, sometimes months apart, sometimes not at all. That much I miss. Sometimes I wonder if the reason why I design train games at all is so that I have an excuse to get the band back together. 

I could of course do a multi-player wargame; they do, after all, exist. As Brian Train and Volko Ruhnke write in their essay for Zones of Control: Perspectives on Wargaming, even traditionally kinetic two-sided conflicts are in actuality multi-faction affairs. And it's not like my own wargame designs are much more complicated than the eurogames I inflicted on my poor playtesters - I think coming to the form via eurogames made me more interested in mechanisms and play dynamics rather than "simulation value" - so I could very well do a wargame that seats three or more. 

The problem lies with the particular player dynamics that I'm most interested in exploring right now. I design intentionally fragile games and it's the job of the players to keep one another in check. Once someone blinks, it's very hard - in some cases impossible - for them to recover at all. Sometimes when I'm describing this aesthetic I will overstate the case somewhat; it's not like every single game I make is going to be an extreme example of this. It figures more heavily in some than in others, and in each game I try to experiment with the emphasis - here there's more room to wiggle out of a trap, while in this one the noose only ever gets tighter.

This dynamic can be very tense and wonderfully stressful for both the player who presses the advantage and the player who finds themselves on the ropes. And in a two-hander, you have one player for each of those roles, with one of them trying desperately to reverse them. Once you add a third player, though, you no longer have that shoving contest, that back-and-forth. The third player is an interloper. An observer. Quite possibly a kingmaker; it's unlikely that one player is going to be pressing the advantage in two directions, and so it's more likely that a third will team up with one to hammer down the other.

And I'm not saying that that can't be interesting, or that multiplayer games can't be fragile. Obviously in both cases the answer is yes, they can be! But it's an entirely different dynamic, one that's often more indirectly adversarial. Whereas many of my games are more like boxing matches; it doesn’t make sense to put more than two dudes in the ring.

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