The other day, I was chatting online with some euro-y types about why we find so many new euro-y games so unsatisfying. Is it a trend toward hollow complexity - full of multiple paths to victory and interlocking mechanisms, signifying nothing? Is it a binary conception of balance that desperately prevents the players' actions from having consequences? Or perhaps it's that these games are built to deliver an optimal experience on the first play, which often means the types of experiences that the game can provide are very narrow and shallow, perfect for the one-and-done crowd, first impression reviews, and strong in-the-moment sales, but not so perfect of course for us highfalutin types who like to spend an afternoon arguing online about why we don't like something.
But I think the most convincing theory put forth during that afternoon's kibitzing came from Siddharth Venkatesh. Mainstream hobby games, he said, seemed to be trending toward "reduced entanglement". Older games tended to be more entangled: "every move you make then had ripple effects on the incentive structure, changing everyone else's goals."
It's no surprise that I found this argument particularly compelling, because that kind of entanglement - the sort of thing that Cole Wehrle once called "strange intimacies" - is entirely my jam. It's what I look for in games I play, and the thing around which I center most of my multiplayer designs (including, in a way, my games for two players). A complaint I've been getting a lot since the reprint of Irish Gauge last year is that everything you do to advance your position also advances someone else's, and that moves you take to hurt someone else's position also hurt your own. And I have to admit, I was and still am baffled by this complaint. The only answer I have to it is, "Yes, what's your point?"
Which probably makes me come across as some kind of jerk, but also highlights that gulf between what the euro-y part of the hobby is trending toward, and what I value. That's not to say there isn't a place in that market for the sorts of games I enjoy. Irish Gauge is a crowd-pleaser that's handily outsold anything else I've done. But there's a limit on the size of the crowd being pleased; the things that make it compelling - that sense of entanglement - are also the things that are going to turn some people off. (It's the same story with Table Battles: it's the best-selling game in our catalogue, but the things that delight its fans cause others to bounce off it but hard.)
Existing as we do off to the side of the industry proper gives us certain luxuries, and among them is that we can prioritize the things that we value. All of our games for three or more players lean heavily on entanglement. Probably there is no game where this is more central than Westphalia, because in a sense, entanglement is all the game is, all it has to offer. So much so that I recently heard someone say that it wasn't really a game - that essentially all it was, was the six people sitting at the table. And, you know, on that last part, he was right: the six people at the table is entirely the point of the thing, and it's the reason for six and only six. Without six people - their agendas, their overlapping alliances, their hopeless entanglements - all you have is a map, some wooden pieces, and some cards.
Westphalia, incidentally, isn't the only one of my wares to have been described as "not really a game". I heard that early and often about Northern Pacific, which has a laser-like focus on emergent alliances, incentives, and navigating the problem of binding turn order (which is why, in the original Winsome edition, turn order was randomized). It also came up in the discourse surrounding For-Ex, which was once uncharitably described as a broken spreadsheet masquerading as a game. The common thread running through all three of them is a strong emphasis on messy, complicated, irreducible, inconvenient entanglement.
That entanglement expresses itself in the way that player decisions and postures warp the game state: if five players go one way and the last goes another, the last will be crushed. That disincentivizes you from going out on a limb, unless you think someone else is also going to go your way. Reading the game state is really a matter of reading other people, and it can be completely, capriciously, and obnoxiously unfair if you get it wrong. And people who dislike this game or that one will point this out, and the only thing I can say in response is, again, "Yes, what's your point?" That's the game; that's the problem it puts before you.
It's not a problem that can ever have a solution. The joy (and the frustration) isn't in the destination - because you'll never arrive - but in the journey, the experience, the paradox, the messiness of other people and the ways they will delight and disappoint you.