Mary Russell

There's an old chestnut that once you start making games yourself, you don't really have time to play anything but your own, and for me, that's more-or-less true. Every once in a while I manage to pull it off though, and I usually learn something from the experience. I actually got another publisher's game on the table recently, and I feel like the game was really let down by that publisher. 

Now, it'd be pretty crummy for me to get on my little soap box and tear down another publisher, and being that we're some weird fringe thing that exists off to the side of the industry and that the target of my ire is a very popular and successful publisher, it also wouldn't be a good look. And, being a mild-mannered Midwesterner, I generally follow the rule that if I can't say something nice, et cetera. Which is to say that this one's going to be a blind item, and I'll thank you not to play Shylock Fox to my Count Weirdly in the comments, because I ain't gonna confirm or deny anything. 

When I do manage to play another publisher's game, I tend to learn something from the experience. Usually the thing that I learn is about a mechanism or a tension or, for lack of a better term, a philosophy - all things that apply to the design itself, to the game itself in its purest, most idealized form. But this time around it was less about the design itself and more about how it was implemented, and boy oh boy, was this one implemented. 

This was a reprint of a cherished and highly-influential classic. And truth be told it's probably one that's starting to show its age, if only just a little. I haven't played the original, but from what I gather it made certain demands on its players that seemed more reasonable then than now, particularly for a title that's seen as having crossover appeal with a wider market. Way back when, grognards didn't mind consulting six different charts or sifting through page after dense page of three column single-spaced type, but today even they'd scoff at that, and that goes double for newbies. So, dusting off this old classic and making it a bit more accessible, yeah, that makes perfect sense to me.

So the publisher gives the game a really lavish production, with the kind of art budget that would make most wargame publishers envious and that gives this inveterate skinflint a full-blown panic attack. The counters are nicely produced in an assortment of shapes and sizes. A lot of the chart functions have been relegated to custom dice with custom symbols: one die for resolving this thing, another for resolving that thing, and so on. The rulebooks - plural - are glossy things with big type and lots of color illustrations. The publisher did everything they could to make it look and feel like a modern, mass-appeal game - and I think they were right to do that.

I also think that the actual way in which they implemented all that was pretty lousy. I don't mind that there are multiple rulebooks. Cole Wehrle's Root has two, a learning-to-play book and a case-style rulebook, and I found it really easy to use the first to learn the thing, and to use the second as a specific reference. I actually like that approach a lot, and the game I'm talking about basically approaches it the same way, and I don't actually have a problem with that. But these rulebooks are ludicrously big flippy-floppy things. I actually have games - heck, we've actually published games - where the hex grid maps take up less space than one of these books once it's been opened. I need both hands to hold one of the darn things. And wait, you want me to have two of these things open at once so I can refer to the scenario instructions as well? I literally don't have enough table space or hands to do that. The books look nice. They're pretty and inviting. But they're barely functional, too cumbersome to serve as a quick and convenient reference.

I have the same problem with the custom dice. They're all six-siders and they come in different sizes and colors. Sometimes the circumstances of a check will require you to roll a different die with a different distribution of symbols; they've basically taken the probabilities of a chart and mapped them onto the die faces, doing away with all the plus-ones and cross-referencing that might put off a neophyte. And, ooh, the dice do look awfully snazzy, and they've got a nice heft to them, but for the life of me I kept forgetting which die went with which thing in which circumstances, and unless I stopped to count and compare the various faces on the various dice, I wouldn't be able to tell you which one was better for its thing than the other.

Whereas if it was just a matter of counting pips and giving it a plus-one for this thing or a minus-one for that, there's a degree of transparency and understanding: I can see right away that a plus-one is better, and that a minus-one is worst, and therefore that this side is better at this thing than that one, or that it behooves me to make sure this modifier is in play. It creates and reinforces meaning, a vital part of any historical game. But the game as implemented did the opposite of that, and there were a dozen other production decisions I'm not even going to get into here. 

It is a much prettier, much more "approachable" version of the game than the original, but only if we're using the word in a commercial sense: it's definitely more attractive to a wider group of gamers than oldschool chits and charts.  And, look, the game sold like gangbusters, so obviously it achieved that goal. But I didn't find it very approachable in an artistic sense, in a functional sense. I'm no slouch in the "learning new games" department, but I spent the better part of two hours struggling through the first turn of an ostensibly three-hour game.

I wonder how many of the gamers that were attracted by the game's considerable bling are going to feel the same, how many of them will table it maybe once or twice and then shelve it in frustration. How many of them will decide that maybe this kind of gaming just isn't for them after all?

I think that's the thing that's got me all irritable. I'm not one of those territorial tarantulas all a-skitter and affright at the sight of wargames being pitched at a broader audience. Heck, even us, with our paper maps and our marginal niche weirdo designs, even we endeavor to make games that have a certain amount of crossover appeal. A big gorgeous super-lavish game like this one? It should've been, could've been a slam dunk, a gateway wargame par excellence, a flagship for the whole ramshackle fleet. It's a rare opportunity utterly squandered. Instead we got rulebooks the size of four-door sedans.

1 comment

  • I solved the “problem” of oversized floppy rulebooks by printing out the old edition’s rules and used those instead. They are almost word for word identical, apart from the changes to use custom dice. My biggest peeve is probably the siege dice. That system mapped awkwardly to custom dice, which made it needlessly more complicated than it had to be, especially how it fumbled about mapping symbols to one character’s special ability, and the city walls.


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