A partial section of a rough prototype map

Designers, stop me if you've heard this one before: you create a new game after lots of immersive research. You have a solid set of mechanics that have been designed specifically to represent that historical conflict. You make up a rough map (in my case, using Photoshop) and a set of counters (in my case, scrawling on some sticker paper), and you sit down at the table to give it a spin. You don't expect everything to work - almost nothing ever does the first time around - but you're hoping that you really are onto something, and that this first rough playtest session will confirm that yes, you were. You play the game...

...and it's just awful. Nothing works. It's boring. It's lopsided, and I don't mean that it leans one way or the other, because very few conflicts don't lean one way or another, but that one side is able to do things and the other is hopelessly helpless to stop them. The game's a mess, and this first (and last) playtest does not confirm your suspicion that you're onto something, but rather your other suspicion, the one you've held for a long time, that you are in fact a charlatan and fraud, duping yourself more than anyone else, who has only gotten lucky with previous designs, and whose luck has at long last run out; you will never design a workable game again.

Before we get too far into pity party territory, I should add that within a few hours or days, you remind yourself that you've designed a couple dozen other games which all seem to work pretty well, and that people have seemed to enjoy to one degree or another, and that this experience is nothing new. You've been here before and you'll be here again, and you've gotten past it before and will get past it again. Sometimes this involves fixing this specific design, sometimes it involves cannibalizing it for parts, sometimes it involves abandoning it altogether, but hey, it's not the end of the world, man. Chill out.

A wall fresco of a seated woman with a kithara, 40-30 BC, from the Villa Boscoreale of P. Fannius Synistor; late Roman Republic.

I had this experience fairly recently myself with a design centered on the political struggle during the last days of the Roman Republic. ("Last days" being used fairly loosely, as it encompasses about a hundred years.) Fairly early in the session, one of the two players took an insurmountable lead, and it didn't seem to be because that side was playing any better, or the other side was playing any worse, than the other. Nor did it seem like the winning faction had any real in-game advantage; the third play of the session saw the other side beating up on the other with impunity right from the get-go. Something was broken about the system itself, which is not something any designer wants to find out. So I washed my hands of it, and put my focus on other designs, figuring that if I figured it out somewhere down the road, I could fix it then.

I came back to it sooner than I had expected, and there were two causes. One was recent political events in my own time and country. Now, I'm not going to get into it here, because my political leanings might be very different than yours, but certain factors in the 2016 election helped me to approach the struggle between the Optimates and Populares of Ancient Rome from a new angle.

The second was a video that Kev Sharp made comparing-contrasting our House of Normandy with the old S&T game Clontarf (in which, I'm pleased to say, we seem to come out ahead). One thing Kev zeroed in on in comparing the two was that Clontarf was pretty attacker-friendly, where you could launch absolutely stupid attacks with no real consequences, while the S&S II CRT was very exchange-heavy, and required a more careful approach as many attacks have the potential to weaken your own forces. This reminded me of a related general tendency that exists in many of my games, and which I felt could be applied to my Optimates vs. Populares game.

Simply stated: if you're strong somewhere, you're weak somewhere else. In a battle game, this means that when you marshal your forces and make a push against a weakness in the enemy line, your own line has been weakened. For example, in The Grunwald Swords, if the Teutonic Player makes a major push against the Poles on the left, they're leaving themselves wide-open for an attack by the returning Lithuanians on the right. The Teutonic Player needs to leave some troops there to mind the gap, but every unit that's left behind weakens the attack on the Poles they need to seal the deal. His opponent is faced with similar challenges; both players need to strike a balance, and that's hard to do for both sides. There's no magic formula that allows the player to be strong enough in all places, though the enemy's ability to react and to threaten in that game is also largely dependent on tempo and timing.

Box cover of Supply Lines of the American Revolution: The Northern Theater, 1775-1777, coming to Hollandspiele in 2017

This balancing act features in many of my designs, and perhaps has its fullest expression in next year's Supply Lines of the American Revolution: The Northern Theater, 1775-1777. In that game, both players are strapped for resources and are perpetually one bad move away, one display of provocative weakness, from losing the game. Making any kind of attack with any possibility of success requires a lot of planning, coordination, supplies, and marshalling of forces - all of which leaves tantalizing weaknesses in your positions throughout the board. Of course, for your enemy to take advantage of those, they must also leave themselves weak elsewhere, and canny players can use a show of weakness to lay a trap. 

If you're strong somewhere, you're weak somewhere else. How this applies to my Optimates vs. Populares game, which of course is not played out on a battlefield and does not concern itself with exposed flanks, is that every time you make any kind of gain or reverse the gains of your opponent, said opponent actually becomes stronger, and is able to do more on their turn. The application of this principle recreates the savage teeter-totter of political fortunes in the late republic. Whether that results in the kind of bitter stalemate that gave way, eventually, to civil war and the Principate, or whether one side can dominate the other, remains entirely up to the players.

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