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.

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