One aspect of Optimates et Populares I've been dancing around and deferring for later discussion in this series of articles is the Dictator, and there's a reason for that: the Dictator was the part of the game that gave me the most trouble. It was the one thing that I just couldn't seem to get to work, the one outstanding design challenge that I was still trying to solve. You would think, from the usage of past tense and the fact that I'm dedicating an article to it that I had found my solution. But, in fact, my "solution" was to eliminate it from the game entirely. So, today I'm going to talk about what I was trying to achieve, the various ways that I tried to achieve it, and, ultimately, how I came to realize that it wasn't a necessary part of the design.
The intent was to have a second, separate Sequence of Play, very different from the normal Sequence of Play, which would be adopted when a Dictator took power - either temporarily, until some semblance of the republic was briefly restored, or permanently, to represent the political Rubicon crossed by events like the murder of the Gracchi or Sulla's March on Rome, which fatally destabilized the Roman Republic. In a game about governing, legislating, and the imposition of gridlock via checks and balances, it made sense that when unchecked, authoritarian power was exercised by a single man, that the rules would quite literally be different.
So, from day one, that was part of the design, this idea that it would be bifurcated, that it would almost be an entirely new game if and when a Dictator took power. Exactly how the game would be different, that was the part that gave me trouble. At first, I tried a Sequence of Play very similar to the "normal" Sequence of Play - two player phases, followed by an elections/scoring phase - but with an entirely different series of actions, including of course Proscription, Conspiracy, and the orchestrating of a Coup. Instead of passing Laws, the Dictator would issue Decrees, swinging any Law a full two spaces in his direction. The Dictator would have no Political Will - as absolute authority, he didn't need any - but his tyranny would yield plenty of PW for his opponent to use to fuel his resistance to the regime. His goal would be to undermine the Dictator's support sufficiently that he could either take absolute power himself, or restore the Consular government (and thus the normal Sequence of Play).
But in its asymmetry it lacked the fine balance of the game's normal mechanisms. And, frankly, it wasn't much fun. I tweaked and experimented with variations on this theme until I struck on a novel idea: why not make the Dictator really different? Why not make it a card-driven game?
I thought I had hit the jackpot there. Think of how cool that sounds: "So, in this game, you're expending Political Will to pass Laws and influence the electorate, but every time you do, it cedes Political Will to the other guy, who uses it to do the same, so the more you do, the more your opponent can do. But, get this: if you seize power militarily and set yourself up as a Dictator, you put all that aside and the game becomes a CDG!" From a commercial perspective, that's a really great selling point, really something unique, so long as it works.
The problem is that it didn't work. Like, at all. Part of it is that I've never actually designed a CDG before. I did do a card-assisted game about high speed hover tanks called, um, High Speed Hover Tank, but almost no one played that, and it's really an outlier in my designs: very random and crazy and "I can't believe this thing just happened". (Mary insists that I mention that she really liked it.) I'm not really someone who digs a lot of randomness in my designs. The "random" elements in my designs, from chit-pulls to die rolls, serve more as "probability" elements - you don't see a lot of chaos or wild swings of fortune in my games.
And while most of the time I think that that's a feature, and not a bug, there are times when I have lingering doubts about my general approach. Are my games too restrained? Do they risk becoming, a die roll or two aside, deterministic exercises? Are they too dry? Are they too mechanical, lacking the chrome that would really deliver the goods on a given era? For something like the last hundred years of the Roman Republic especially, which were extremely tumultuous and chaotic, was my usual approach really the right approach?
And I think those doubts are one thing that powered my increasingly frustrated search for a workable set of Dictator mechanics, up to and including the CDG version. To add that extra bit of chrome and chaos that would prevent my delicate little pocket-watch of a game from being too tightly wound, too neat and tidy.
Now, I think these kinds of doubts are healthy, to a point; asking questions is the first and sometimes most important step in answering them. It's a vital part of the process, and it's one reason why I like to put a game aside for a couple of weeks during development and come back to it with fresh eyes. It's why I like to do "just one more playtest" before declaring that the rules are finished.
At the same time, these kinds of doubts can also eat away at your confidence, making you blind to things that should be obvious. The entire time I've been testing Optimates et Populares, regardless of which version of the Dictator rules I was using, I enjoyed the game more, and found it more compelling, without those rules. There are times when, because I was enjoying the game, I purposely didn't go for the Dictatorship so that I could keep playing the part of the game that I found interesting. That, my friends, is the very definition of a red flag. I couldn't see it because I was convinced that if I just found the right set of new mechanics, I could make it work, make it just as compelling as the "normal" part of the game.
But once I tried the CDG mechanics - mechanics I thought for sure would make it all "click" - I realized that it was the underlying concept of a bifurcated design that was faulty. That even if I found the "right" mechanics, I still would feel unsatisfied with it. I talked about it with Mary during one of our walks: talked about what I wanted the Dictator sequence to do, about what it represented historically, about my doubts, and especially about the fact that I was consciously trying to avoid triggering it. Mary helped me come to the conclusion that the game was better off without it.
And so I cut it, and once I did, I was amazed at how sprightly the rules became. Some of the features of the Dictatorship were folded into what remained. If a player takes all three Major Offices, then they basically have no check on their power (just like a Dictator would), but his opponent will get some automatic support from the horrified Senate (as happened in the various versions of the Dictator rules). There's also a Proscription action for those players who wish to use murder as a means of generating income and silencing dissent.
As I said, sometimes these kinds of doubts are healthy, and they lead you to ask the right questions, but at other times, they result in you chasing your tail for a good long while. Knowing which is which isn't always easy.