LUCK OF THE DRAW (by Tom Russell)

Mary Russell

Tags gameplay

To some degree, almost all of my games are about controlling the balance - about pushing the system until it works in your favor, and preventing your opponent from doing the same. Deadlock-as-decision-space, yadda-yadda-yadda - I've done this song and dance before, and sure, when you've got to write roughly a hundred blog-things a year, you do find yourself returning to the same wells more than once.

What I want to talk about today however is one aspect of this - about the state of the balance at the start of the game. It's very seldom in these sorts of highly fragile games that I start all players on an equal footing. For-Ex is the first exception that comes to mind. Each player's actions push at the system in an incremental way, and it's relatively easy for the other players to push back - the game only becomes as distorted as the players want it to, and some players find the early game less interesting because of it.

In my fragile 2P games, however, one player starts with a certain amount of leverage over the other, and their goal in the early game is to use that and turn it into a definitive, decisive lead. The other player's job is to stop them, and then turn the tables. I don't usually give the other player a lot of room to breathe and feel things out - which is not so bad when both players are experienced, or when both players are inexperienced for that matter, but can be more problematic when there's a wide differential. (I'd like to think that if the more experienced player has the leverage in the early game, that they'd help the new player see ways to wiggle free of the first player's grasp.)

Besides the experience level of the players, there's also the question of exactly how much leverage one player has over the other at the start of the game - it determines how precarious the disadvantaged player's position is and how quickly they need to act to reverse it. In Optimates et Populares, the random make-up of the Senate only confers a slight advantage - one side or the other will generally start with two to four more Influence than the other, making it easier to pass laws. Wider spreads are possible if statistically unlikely. Theoretically you could have a match where one side starts with a ten point lead in the Senate, which at the very least will make for a very interesting and tough game.

In my most recent release, This Guilty Land, one side or the other will almost always start with some leverage, but the amount of leverage varies wildly and is not always obvious. There are two factors that inform this: quantity of cards and quality of cards.

The way the opening deal in This Guilty Land works is that you have 45 of the 50 cards in the deck - 21 red and 24 blue - and you flip them one at a time, giving blue cards to Justice and red to Oppression, until each side has at least four cards. This will usually result in a symmetrical 4-4 split, though a 5-4 and 6-4 split for either side is fairly common, and in those cases, the player who is shorted gets 1 VP per card in compensation. The statistical likelihood of wider splits dwindles somewhat exponentially - the chances of a 12-4 split, for example, is less than one percent - but technically you could get a 24-4 split in the opening deal, though I've never seen it, and that would be starting Oppression off with 20 VP. Since the game ends after 30 VP have been scored, exhausting the supply, my money might actually be on Oppression in that match.

That really depends however on the quality of the cards. Putting aside the one-off Special Event cards (four of the five of which begin the game outside the deck), there are four kinds of cards in the game. Law cards are used to pass legislation, and since they begin with control of the House, these are going to be more useful for Oppression in the opening deal. However, to pass Laws early-on they will need Public Opinion cards in order to persuade blue Compromise Senators. Public Opinion cards are also the bread-and-butter for Justice - a blue opening hand without any Public Opinion cards can be tough but not insurmountable. Organization cards increase a side's Org Capacity, which does a number of things but one thing that's important in the early game is that it makes it easier to draw more cards. Violence cards can do the same thing, but at a cost, reducing Support on the board in each Region.

Neither side really wants to see a Violence card early on - they're something of a poison pill. Organization cards are useful for both sides, while Justice wants to see more Public Opinion cards, and Oppression more Laws (but they also need Public Opinion cards to effectively pass them). But the quality of the hand also depends on how quickly you can get rid of those cards and get new ones in your hand, and that can vary depending on the cards.

There are three actions in the game that are "final actions". These are the actions that you can only take at the end of your turn, and you can only take one of them. Organization and Violence actions are two of these, and Discarding is the third. Discarding simply removes cards from the Events Display to the Discard pile, but can't be used on Violence cards, and if the powerful 6 PW "Any Law" card is present and you Discard any cards, it must be one of the cards discarded.

Now, after the initial deal, cards are only drawn from the deck at the start of a turn if one or both players have fewer cards than their Org capacity, which at the start of the game is two for Justice and one for Oppression. The Org Capacity can also be modified if your opponent passes Tariffs in their direction.

So, Organization cards are good, but if you're Justice and you have a hand that's three Org cards and a Law card, it's a fairly rubbish hand. Play an Org card, and it increases your Org Capacity to three. But you have three cards in hand, so you're not going to trigger drawing any new cards on Turn 2. Play another Org card on Turn 2 and you'll finally get a new card on Turn 3 - but that's two turns where Oppression is left to their own devices, unopposed, and they're unlikely to trigger a draw on their turn.

A better move for Justice on Turn 1 would be to Discard three cards - two of the Org cards plus that Law card - which gets a new card in their hand for Turn 2. Maybe that will be a Public Opinion card, and they can use that, then play the remaining Org card to bump them up.  (But I would only do this if Oppression can't or doesn't pass Tariffs on Turn 1, because Tariffs will get your Org Capacity down from two to one, in which case you won't trigger the draw.)

The opening draw can put either player in a tough spot, and that's kind of the point: one player is going to want to exploit that and the other is going to have to scramble to get out of it. The toughness of the position varies depending on the contents of the draw and the skill level of the player. Because the two players through their actions determine when and if new cards are drawn, and because certain card types can put the brakes on that, good tactical play is about figuring out how to speed up the deck to get the cards you want, and to slow it down once you have them. The second-worst thing you can do is hold onto a "good" card that you can't use right now, because if you don't get cards that you can use in hand, you'll never get the opportunity. (The worst-worst thing? Getting rid of a card you can't use right now that would be perfect one or two turns hence.)

Compared to my other games, there's a much wider variety of opening situations - some leaning slightly this way or that, some more dramatically, some that seem to lean this way until it's revealed they lean the other - and the game is somewhat built around that. There's a danger with a card game that it can become too swingy, and This Guilty Land embraces that rather than protects against it - partisan politics are, after all, a rather nasty and brutish business, unconcerned with fairness. Perhaps because of this, the game is still utterly fascinating to me - even after it's been published, even while I have stacks of submissions to get through and new games to design for next year, I find myself getting it back on the table again and again.

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