I’ve often mentioned that I don’t really start working on a game – on the cobbling together of rules and components – until I have a clear and coherent image in my head of what that game looks like and what I want it to do and to express. Then, I keep working on it until it resembles that picture in my brain; that’s how I know it’s done. This doesn’t mean that that picture can’t change and shift during the process. Nor does it mean that I stay committed to an idea or mechanic when it’s clearly not working. Sometimes these changes happen as a result of testing, development, or further research. And sometimes, it’s entirely by accident.
I’ve told this story once or twice before, but here it is again: when I was working on With It Or On It, I hit a wall. The game just wasn’t working, and so I set the “game” part of it aside and started tooling around with the counters in Photoshop. I was experimenting with two different placements for the “exhausted” back-of-counter stripe, and happened to leave both of them visible at once. And in that bit of happenstance was the inspiration for “brittle” units, which turned out to be the thing that made the whole game finally work.
It probably should come as no surprise that The Grass Crown – the sequel to With It Or On It, recreating ten battles of the Roman Republic – likewise benefited from entirely accidental game design.
One of the primary complaints people had with With It was the flat, featureless terrain. This was historically accurate, but all the same it’s possible it put a ceiling on sales of the game. Certainly I heard from more than one person who bought it and had it sit on their shelf for months because they were deterred by the square grid and lack of terrain: “I finally got it on the table after dragging my feet on it, and gosh, I wish I had been playing it all along! It’s really good!”
That’s definitely something I wanted to avoid with The Grass Crown, and so we’re springing for a half-sheet of rectangular terrain tiles. On the same sheet I would place the initiative and command markers, which would help differentiate them from units (and give me room for more on the main countersheet). But once I had laid out all the terrain tiles and command markers, I had one unused marker left on the sheet.
Well, I should do something with that, I thought. Since the initiative marker begins in one player’s hand and passes back and forth as it is used, I figured I’d do something in the same vein, and thus in the space of about two minutes I had added the fortuna marker to the game. The fortuna marker gives its holder four large saltwater fish – wait a minute, that’s the fourtuna marker, that’s completely different. The fortuna marker gives you two re-rolls. Combat, Skirmish, Rally, Elephant Trampling, you name it. Once you’ve used it twice, your opponent gets it. This gives players a tool with which to mitigate freak die rolls.
In scenarios featuring manipular legions, this is especially important. Quick refresher: the manipular legion fought in three lines, with the worst troops in the front and the best troops in the back. You want to keep those garbage troops in play as long as possible, so that when they fall back, the enemy line has been weakened enough that your better troops can break it. A couple of key re-rolls will keep them in the fight a little longer, giving the Romans a stronger chance overall.
Another key equalizer is the presence of Hero Units, which function a little like Leader Units in With It but with an important wrinkle that was likewise added entirely on accident. With It veterans will recall that when a unit suffers an Exhaustion result, it is flipped, revealing one of the following: an exhausted stripe, the brittle double stripe that results in its immediate elimination, or a Leader, which has both a Combat Class (same as the obverse) and a star symbol which denotes it as a Leader. Leaders don’t get exhausted but keep fighting. As a reminder, Combat Classes range from “A” to “C”, though they can be modified during play, all the way down to “D” or all the way up to “A+”.
Well, I must have been tired when I was doing the counters for The Grass Crown, because when I got them on the table, I discovered to my horror that I had plum forgot to put the Combat Class on the reverse of the Leader counters. A more industrious designer would grab a marker and write the correct Combat Class on each counter, and then go back into Photoshop and re-do each Leader counter. But that last part especially sounded really tedious and so I grabbed a marker and crossed out the “A+” on the CRT, replacing it with a star symbol: every Leader in the game, once flipped, now had the best Combat Class in the game. Huh, guess I’ll call them Heroes now.
I cannot emphasize this enough: in what was essentially a pique of laziness, I decided to change the rules to my game rather than go through the hassle of fixing my mistake. And, you know what? It makes for a more dynamic and interesting play experience. In the heat of battle, these Hero units emerge and prove to be of sterner stuff than their compatriots, capable perhaps of turning the tide in their favor, or at least of holding the line long enough for reinforcements to arrive.
It tells a story, and it’s a story that I never would have thought of telling if I hadn’t goofed.