Mary Russell

My new game Supply Lines of the American Revolution: The Southern Strategy begins with the Siege of Charleston, still one of the most humiliating defeats in America's history. Or rather, it can begin with the siege - it depends who wins the initiative die roll. If the Crown Player does, then it's likely to go down as it did historically. There's roughly a 58% chance of that happening, and if it does, it's going to shift the Political Will Track one space into the red zone - that is, in a direction favorable to the Crown Player - and for reasons too complicated to get into right now, it will take longer for Patriot Militia in South Carolina to really get going.

If the Patriot Player comes out on top however, then those units in Charleston have a good chance of escaping, at least for a little while. They're vastly outnumbered, out of supply, and don't have a Leader to enable them to make any attacks or to energetically pursue any military objectives; they'll still have to wait for the main Patriot army to work its way South from the top of the map. It does become more likely however that the Swamp Fox and his militiamen will grab and keep control of South Carolina's Partisan Boxes.

This simple die roll, then, will confer a subtle advantage to one side or the other that will influence the early turns of the game. It's a technique I've used before: a pre-game randomization element that tips the scales ever so slightly in one direction or the other. A good example of this is the way Senators are doled out during set-up in Optimates et Populares, which will generally give a slight edge to one faction or the other. If the Populares begin the game with more Senatorial support, they can attempt passage of a Law with a Consul as their first action; if the Optimates have that edge, on the other hand, the Populares need to spend some PW to shift things back in their direction first.

Someone once asked me why I did this at all - why randomly gift to one side an advantage, no matter how slight? Mostly it's because of how I approach my two-player games, as shoving contests where both sides push against one another. One side always has some kind of advantage and is seeking to entrench it, while the other is trying to steal the advantage for themselves. If the game begins with one side having that advantage, it immediately gives the two combatants something to fight about. If which side has the advantage differs from game to game, it adds to the variability and replay value.

Each time I use the technique I experiment with emphasis and the nature of this initial advantage. Usually it's very slight - it takes a fair amount of work to make it into something more substantial. In This Guilty Land, there's more of a swing factor involved. Set-up for that game involves drawing cards from the deck until each player has at least four cards. While this tends to result in each player starting with four cards, it does allow for one side to start with five, or six, or ten, or fifteen. Statistically that's pretty unlikely - a 4-4 or 5-4 split is going to happen in the vast majority of cases, while the odds of a 15-4 split are astronomical - but when it does it results in a radically different decision space. In case you're wondering, the side that's shortchanged earns VP equal to the difference in compensation, so if you end up getting a "big hand" at the start of the game, you really have to put it to good use to overcome the VP advantage you've conferred to the other side.

And like a lot of my games, I try to make this "big hand" advantage brittle and double-edged; this is especially important given the swing factor. The more cards you have out right now, the harder it is to get new cards into play. If you draw a lot of cards at the start of the game, those might be the only cards you see. You have more resources, but less flexibility. Meanwhile your opponent is cycling through the deck. I've seen the side with the "big hand" win, and I've seen the side with the "big hand" lose: that initial advantage doesn't determine the outcome of the game, but it sure makes it interesting to play and to watch.

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