Mary Russell

Games are unusual in that they generally have the structure of a story (a beginning, a middle, and an end) but are not themselves stories. I don't build a plot or create characters, and I'm not leading you along from A to B to C. I'm not a storyteller; the idea is to create models and dynamics that allow you to tell your own stories.

In the case of wargames, these stories are historical. The model is meant to isolate certain aspects of the historical event that the designer thinks were important and will help you understand how and why the thing turned out the way it did. Sometimes the model's parameters are very narrow, and the game ends up telling the same story every time, in more or less the same way. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; the result can be interesting and useful. Some situations (particularly battles) are less dynamic than others, and the right amount of texture can compensate for the fact that I'm going to spend most of my time trying to take this hill, and you're going to spend most of your time trying to keep me off it.

I've talked before about how in my more aggressively idiosyncratic work, I strive to balance the game on the tip of a pin: tenuous, fragile, prone to extreme distortion. Each player wants to swing things in their favor, and each player has to work like heck to stop the other from doing just that. Once this equilibrium is upset, however, the game can take on radically different shapes, and this allows for radically different emergent narratives.

These stories can be bewildering, exhilarating, hilarious, stressful, tense, wonderful: interesting. And sometimes it's less so; sometimes, the air goes out of the thing and the tension is gone. And both of these extremes are a function of how elastic, how mutable the system is. You can make it less elastic, less mutable, protecting against the lowest lows, but you do so at the expense of those delirious highs. It's a little like my aunt's pretzel jello.

Strawberry Pretzel Dessert from A Taste of Home

Once a year for as far back as I can remember, my aunt has made a dessert called pretzel jello. Every year, she follows the same recipe, using the same ingredients. Most years, it's pretty good, and some years, it's sublime, for a very specific, family-tradition, grading-on-a-curve definition of sublime. But every once in a while the thing just doesn't work. We're not quite sure why that is. My aunt has been happy to give the recipe to others, and they too end up with the same results, where sometimes it's great and sometimes it's not. It's just the way my aunt's pretzel jello is. Other folks bring other dishes: pasta salads, deviled eggs, all the usual suspects, and they're all fine. They taste the same every time, and there's some comfort in that. They're safe choices. But when pretzel jello works, none of them can come anywhere close to it. Because it works more often than it doesn't, on the whole we think it's worth it.

Most designers, most publishers, and perhaps even most gamers prefer games that are narrowly bounded, that will work as intended every time: pasta salad (or pasta point salad for the eurogamers in my readership). It is, in fact, a key part of their conception of a game's balance. That's part of why they talk about balance as a static, binary thing: the game is balanced or the game is imbalanced, it works or it doesn't, it's good or it's bad.

Balance for me is more fluid, more a matter of degrees and of emphasis. The kind of games I'm talking about, my pretzel jello, they're balanced with the intention of becoming imbalanced, of responding dynamically to the players, of producing interesting results. The question isn't whether it works or it doesn't, because once in a while, it won't. Nearly all the games of Supply Lines are nail-biters, but I've played one or two where, because of the ways in which the players have distorted the game state, the whole thing falls flat. The question is, how often does the game let the players tell interesting stories, and how interesting are those stories - are they interesting enough, and are they interesting often enough, that it's worth the risk that comes with that kind of distortion and fragility?

And that's a question that I have to answer as a designer, that Mary and I have to answer as publishers, and that you have to answer as a consumer. Sometimes those answers will be quite different! Sometimes my answer is different from one project to the next. There are some games that will never see the light of day because my answer is, no, this isn't as interesting as I want it to be or as often as I want it to be, and so it's not worth it. But when the game seems to have stumbled upon some strange alchemy, if my distortion-machine creates stories that are interesting enough often enough, well, then that's something I'll want to put on your table, if you're adventurous enough to give it a nibble.

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