Mary Russell

Every turn, you start with this massive hand of cards – fifteen, twenty, twenty-five. So many cards, so many possibilities. You get this huge pile of cards and it feels like with those cards, you can do anything. Never mind that the person sitting across from you also has a huge pile of cards, never mind that they also feel like they can do anything. Never mind, in fact, that the decks are perfectly symmetrical – never mind that you're evenly matched. This time, this turn, you're going to use your huge pile of cards to break their line.

Some of the cards represent units, and you deploy them face-down across six sectors. Other cards stay in your hand, ready for you to play them when each sector is resolved. One of the players will decide which the order in which you deploy in these sectors, and after that, the order in which the battles are resolved. This is huge. If you want that advantage, you'll have to outbid your opponent for it at the start of the turn – and the only currency you have is that huge pile of cards. How much is it worth to you? Five of your cards? Six? The bidding is secret, and both the winner and the loser pay what they've promised.

In a way, that's the entire game. Each sector asks you the same questions: how much is this piece of ground worth to you? How many cards, how many strength points, how many simulated lives? Bid more than your opponent, and so long as you have other cards in hand to back it up, then you'll be able to break through – or hold, depending on your posture, and depending on theirs. If both of you are expecting a big attack, and you both hunker down to defend, then there's no action to be had. Of course, if you move a large number of your forces into a single sector, so that you clearly outnumber the enemy, then they know what's coming, and will defend accordingly.

It's about nerves. It's about bluff. It's about realizing that you can't be strong everywhere, so you have to choose your victories and risk your defeats. Suddenly your huge pile of cards doesn't feel so huge. You don't feel like you have more than enough to do what you want; you've barely enough to do what you need. And even if you manage to plan and pull off a major offensive, achieving breakthroughs in multiple sectors, next turn you'll still be fighting over that same stretch of ground. The enemy has only fallen back to their next line of defenses; from thirty thousand feet up, it doesn't look like the lines have moved at all. Welcome to the Western Front.

Renaud Verlaque's The Big Push is a game I wish I had designed. Now, I've never designed a World War I game, and I probably never will, but that's not what I mean. What I mean is, when I first played the game, I identified it as the work of a kindred spirit. I aim for elegance – for simple, clean models that impart a lot of historical flavor with as few ingredients as possible. My games often revolve around a particular type of tension, where the resources you need to succeed over there will invariably and provocatively open up a weakness here – if your opponent is smart enough and bold enough to seize upon it. And, given that I've written like a bajillion blog-things about tempo and initiative, a game where control of initiative has outsized impact is very much in my wheelhouse.

Which is all to say that I fell head-over-heels for the thing the second it showed up on our doorstep. Everything Renaud had on offer was very much my jam, and we absolutely leapt at the chance to sign it. We knew going in that there would be some challenges. The game depends heavily on bluff and deception – which means that it's not suited for "play both sides" solitaire play. Games that can't be soloed don't get nearly the same traction as games that can.

Beyond that, at its heart it is really a card game rather than a board game. In fact, Renaud's prototype was all cards, with a small handful of wooden tokens. While the rules weren't complex, they weren't so simple that we could put them on a handful of cards; we'd need an actual eight-page rulebook. That meant that we'd need a box to contain said rulebook and cards. Our boxes are one of our most expensive components, and a hundred-plus cards isn't exactly cheap at print-on-demand price. The lowest price at which we would be able to offer the game was significantly more expensive than what folks are used to paying for a pure card game.

So, we did what we could to add more value to that box. Instead of six sector cards and two tracking cards, we'd include a gorgeous mapsheet by Ilya Kudriashov. Instead of a few wooden tokens, we'd throw in a half-sheet of counters, which included a special chunky punch-out turn track. While it didn't exactly transform it into a board game, and while we never disguised the fact that it was a card game, we tried to give it a more handsome production, so that folks would want to plonk down their cash for it, and would feel like they got their money's worth.

As I said, the cost of the cards in POD quantities dictated those production decisions back in 2018. Those same costs have increased by about 40% in 2021; we are seriously looking at increasing the MSRP of our card-heavy games. The Big Push is card-heavier than most; it's the most cards we've ever put in a single box. The pricepoint at which we would have to offer it in order to cover the increased production cost would be severely out-of-step with what we feel the market would support. For that reason, we chose not to renew the license, and the game will be leaving our catalogue at the end of June.

You know, we really adore our model – we really love the games it lets us publish and the risks it allows us to take. But every once in a while, we bump up against the areas where it limits us, and this is one of those situations. A traditional publisher, with access to traditional printing methods, would be paying nearly ten times less per card. But a traditional publisher is probably a lot less likely to take a chance on a historical WWI Western Front two-player card game in the first place.

A conundrum, and a frustrating one. I cannot stress this enough: I love this game. I think it's fascinating and compelling, and it's very much the kind of thing I enjoy both as a player and as a designer. Renaud has indicated that he's unlikely to pursue a new publisher, so if you want to snag a copy, you gotta do it in the next few days.

1 comment

  • This sounds really intriguing. Seems like I was a little too late.

    Stephen K Smith

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