Mary Russell

fancy years ago, when I had delusions of being a euro-game designer, I designed a game about monks in the dark ages copying the masterworks of antiquity. There was something like nine different actions a player could take, which were all somewhat related to one another. The crux of the game is that each player started with an identical set of action tiles, which they added to as they bought and placed new tiles, increasing the actions that were available to them (and, eventually, to other players). And so the rules for the game began by explaining the components and the set-up, followed by the turn sequence, followed by a section for each of the nine actions in tandem, and then, finally, how the game ended and how victory was determined. The game was very thoroughly tested and was, I think, one of my stronger euro-style designs. (If I had it to do over again, I'd do it very differently, but at the time, i was quite proud of it.)

I had some difficulty finding a publisher. The big complaint was that the game took too long - I was getting reports from various publishers' playtest and evaluation groups of games that lasted four hours with no end in sight. That made no sense to me, because at most it should be taking about thirty minutes per player. I tried to find out if there were rules that were being overlooked or misplayed, but no, it seemed like they were doing everything correctly... just very, very slowly!

The problem was that while they were reading the rules and playing by the rules, they weren't understanding them - the game wasn't clicking. They couldn't get it to come together as a whole; everything existed only as a disconnected step or sub-system. I had a friend look at the rules, and he zeroed in on the problem immediately.


"What you're doing is that you're burying the lede," he said. "You have a game where each player is building their own 'roundel', the same way you might build your own deck in a deck-builder. But you don't actually say that that's what you're doing. You have the action here where you buy and place the new activation tile, but nowhere do you explain that that's what the game is all about. So folks are just seeing the separate actions, without seeing how they all tie together."

That game, like all my attempts to break into the euro-world, never quite got anywhere. But that principle - don't bury the lede - has stuck with me, and I take pains when I write rules to describe how various elements fit together. To fall back on a cliche, I try to describe the forest before I get into detail about each of the trees; as each new piece of information comes at the reader, I want them to see how it fits in with the rest.

There's a definite danger with wargames especially of the rules being reduced to a detailed list of individual trees. Wargames are sufficiently complex, and tend to be sufficiently procedural, that they lean toward "first you do this, then you do that, then you do that" without conveying a strong sense of what it is, exactly, that we're supposed to be doing. Francis Tresham's Revolution: The Dutch Revolt is a prime example of a great game that's hard as heck to get a grasp of, as there are twenty different discrete steps to each turn. The rulebook doesn't really explain how they all fit together so much as they basically say, "Just start playing and you'll start to get the hang of it eventually".

I know some folks found the rules to Cole Wehrle's An Infamous Traffic hard to grasp, but I think that's a different issue altogether. Mechanically, the game is very simple, and I think the rules actually do an excellent job of tying it all together; the relationships between enterprises, revenue, smugglers, missionaries, demand, conspiracies, and the game-end/winning conditions are all pretty well delineated. I think that the difficulty arises not because players can't grok "what are we supposed to be doing", but rather, because it's difficult to figure out how to do it well. Or, to extend the analogy, it's not because they can't see the forest for the trees, but because it's hard to find your way in the forest, and easy to get lost.

Connecting all the dots - drawing a strategic map for the players to follow as they learn the game, nudging them toward "good play" and away from "bad play" - for any game as opaque as Traffic not only greatly diminishes the exploratory aspect of the game, but it's also frankly impossible. A move or strategy is only good or bad in context, and then often only in hindsight. So, where and how do you draw the line when writing the rules and teaching these more opaque sort of games?

map section

Heck if I know. When I was writing the rules for Optimates et Populares, I leaned heavily toward not connecting the dots.  I explained the core concept, Political Will, that powers the game - I didn't bury the lede - but as for the rest, I told the players what tools they had at their disposal, what those tools did, and how their opponent might be able to block that action, but not how they should use them, or why it might be beneficial to take an action with the knowledge that it will be blocked.

One question I got involved the Public Games action, in which players bid for the opportunity to flip some peeps. Each player must match or exceed his opponent's bid, and when one of them can't or won't do that, the player who bid the most gets to flip counters depending on the difference between the bids. "What if it's zero?" the guy asked. Well, if it's zero, then no one was the high bidder, and there's no difference between the bids - so no counters get flipped. "Well, then, what's to stop a player from just bidding exactly what the other guy has to stop him from flipping?"

Well, exactly, and doing that is a viable strategy, and it might behoove the player initiating the action to bid one more than the other guy has on hand. But I'd rather let the players discover that kind of stuff themselves. That being said, some folks might find that approach frustratingly obtuse, and not much different than "Just start playing, and you'll get the hang of it eventually".

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