LIMITS (by Tom Russell)

Mary Russell

I got my start doing magazine games. Working in that format, I generally had a half-sheet of five-eighths inch counters - eighty-eighty of 'em, in five blocks of sixteen and one block of eight - and one eleven by seventeen mapsheet. That allowed for about twelve reasonably sized hexes in a column and twenty or so in a row. Because having a separate display sheet would increase the production cost of the game, any tracks, including the turn track, needed to fit on that mapsheet. I could however have some charts to go on the back of the rulebook.

It was much easier to design with that format in mind than it was to try and retrofit it. Once I designed a multi-battle boxed game, with each battle having its own seventeen by twenty-two inch map, only to have the publisher decide that they wanted to split each battle into its own folio-style game with their usual eleven by seventeen inch maps. And, hey, having several games published is better than having one game not published, so I got to work violently lopping off hexes in columns and rows until a smaller and more claustrophobic version of each battlefield remained. Some of the battles took to this treatment better than others, but something - sometimes something quite small and intangible - is always lost in the abridgement.

Though my magazine days are behind me, I still design with production constraints in mind. Those constraints are less rigidly defined. Rather than being limited to a half-sheet of counters, I can choose to use a half-sheet or a full-sheet. Our standard map is a roomier seventeen by twenty-two, but if I need to, I can do a twenty-two by thirty-four. Most of our games have a single rulebook that runs eight or twelve pages, but if it's warranted, as was the case with This Guilty Land, I can have a separate rulebook and playbook. Sometimes charts go on the back of the rulebook, sometimes they get a separate front-and-back PAC, and if the thing is especially fancy we use a four-page gatefold. Should I use cards, and if so, how many? Would wood bits enhance the experience?

This all sounds like Publisher Stuff, and in a way it is, but it's also integral to my process in designing and developing each game. I'm going to make different decisions about hex scale with a "full" map than I will with a "half" map. What's on each counter is going to depend on the number of counters I have available, and even how they might be arranged on the sheet to protect against miscuts. The amount of wood in the game is going to be limited by how many wood pieces are going to fit into the bag, and ultimately the box.

We have a bunch of wooden blocks of the same shape and size we used for Ty Bomba's Boom and Zoom and Mark Herman's Ribbit. And I'd like to do an honest-to-gosh block game with them. There are challenges there, such as finding the right subject that benefits from the fog-of-war approach, and also finding something new to say while avoiding the hoary old "roll dice equal to your steps, A fires before B before C" system.

Those are, for lack of a better word, creative challenges, but there's also the more practical challenge of doing it all with only twenty-four blocks, because that's the most that we can fit in one of our boxes. These blocks are considerable larger than the ones often used in block games, so they will in turn dictate certain features of the map - the areas or points or whatever have to be large enough to accommodate multiple blocks comfortably. Which means that even with a larger full-sized map we would end up with fewer areas, and a decision space that is less granular geographically.

And so as I move forward on this project, I will need to work with that in mind, I will need to work with those limitations rather than pushing against them, to make them features rather than caveats.

1 comment

  • I got my start using similar physical limits (one sheet of counters, 11×17″ map) with the Microgame Design Group. Any writer will tell you that it’s harder to write a short story than a big maundering novel.
    24 blocks max, huh… sounds like a challenge. Hmmm.

    Brian Train

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