PACING (by Tom Russell)

Mary Russell

Many of my games are short. Probably the quickest is Northern Pacific, published in 2012 by Winsome and reprinted in 2018 by Rio Grande, a single round of which takes maybe five minutes. Most of my other games top out at about an hour or so, and a key part of the development process is making the thing faster, simpler, and more streamlined.

Partially this is a function of the kinds of games I'm interested in making. A lot of my games are comically fragile - one mistake and you're done for. If the game keeps going for another couple of hours without any chance of you catching up, that can be problematic. So it makes sense for me, whenever possible, to close the gap between losing the game (in terms of making a fatal error) and losing the game (in terms of the thing being over). There's also the fact that my games are often idiosyncratic, unusual, or just plain weird, and as Dr. Johnson famously (if erroneously) said of Tristram Shandy, nothing odd will do long.

All that factors into it, but I'm more inclined to think that I keep so many of my games short simply because that's the right length for those specific games - brisk is the right pace for those specific experiences. I don't think that speed is a virtue in its own right, that faster is always better. Easier to get on the table, sure, but not automatically better as a game experience. There's a famous story about the film The Godfather, which as you probably know has a three-hour runtime. Supposedly an early cut of the film came in at under two hours, a more conventional runtime that would allow for a greater number of showings per day: it would be easier to get in the theater. But in cutting a few reels from the picture, that version sacrificed all the texture - all the things that make the film memorable and give its characters and moments time to breathe. Director Francis Ford Coppola's version of the story is that producer Robert Evans is the one that tried to butcher the film, and Coppola pushed for the longer version; Evans's version of the story is that Coppola is the one that tried to butcher it, and Evans pushed for the longer version. (Victory has a hundred fathers, et cetera.)

Like I said, most of my development time is spent making the thing move quicker, but recently, working on With It Or On It, the first game in our Shields & Swords Ancient line, I found myself trying to slow it down. I always intended it to be a quick game, much like its medieval cousin, but scenarios were resolving themselves in fifteen or twenty minutes - about half the time that I was aiming for. There wasn't any "arc" to it; the thing would just get started and then unravel. That was unsatisfying.

To top it off, it just didn't feel right. An ancient battle shouldn't be super-quick, and when the two lines came to grips with one another, it shouldn't be immediately decisive. In fact, the system was built to prevent just that kind of result. Units are grouped together in rectangular globs of color-coded counters called Wings. When a specific Unit takes a hit, either it or one of the Units adjacent to it in the Wing can be flipped to its Exhausted side. A flipped Unit can't be Eliminated unless there are no fresh Units remaining that can suffer the result. When a Unit is Eliminated, a Rout Check is made for all Units on that side, which is based on the adjacency of each Unit to other Units in its Wing. Basically, it takes some pushing to open a hole in the enemy line, but once you do, you might have several Units Routing in one fell swoop.

The problem is that it wasn't taking all that much effort to open that hole. The Wings lacked the resiliency and staying power that they needed. And this really shouldn't have been the case. The game used a Rally action to flip Exhausted Units back to Fresh. This was a die-roll based mechanism, but it was a roll that was fairly easy to make - when a player assigned a Rally Command to a Wing, it was rare for the die roll to fail. The problem was that players (including myself!) weren't really using the Rally Command.

Still from Alexander Nevsky, dir. Sergei Eisenstein, 1938

A quick primer for the uninitiated: in the Shields & Swords II series of medieval battle games, each player has a set of double-sided Command Markers. The actions that a Wing takes in a turn are determined by the Command Markers they use, and which side of those markers they use. In the medieval game, for example, Move and Shield Wall are on the same chit, as are Combat and Withdraw. Therefore you can't perform a Move Phase and a Shield Wall Phase on the same turn, nor can you perform Combat on the same turn that you Withdraw.

This same mechanism is carried over to the Ancients line, though there is a different set of Commands. Move was paired with Skirmish (a ranged attack made before the two lines of heavier infantry had come into contact with each other) and Combat with Rally. Like in the medieval games, a Bonus Command Marker could be paired with any of the other Phases to modify it. In the medieval battles, Bonus + Move would allow a Wing to perform two Move Phases, one after the other. Bonus + Combat gave them the option of either performing two Combat Phases, or performing one "pitched" Combat Phase where attackers had a bonus. I carried over the Bonus effects to the Ancients game, though I dropped the "pitched" combat option very early in testing.

And this was really the root of the problem. Say it's Sparta's turn. They're going to use Bonus and Combat together to get two Combat Phases, one after the other. They average maybe 2.5 hits per phase, taking 1.5 hits on average in return, all other things being equal. At the end of the second Combat Phase, they've suffered three hits and have dealt five - the average Wing has between eight and ten Units.

Now it's their opponent's turn, and they start with over half their strength Exhausted. They can Rally or Combat but not both. They're going to be making two or three Rally attempts per Phase. If they spend their turn to Rally, and they succeed on all attempts (likely but not guaranteed), they'll still have two or three Exhausted Units left. That's their whole turn, and now it's back to Sparta again, who again uses Bonus and Combat, again performing two Combat Phases, and again inflicting an average of five hits - and probably in this case causing a break in the line. Even as Sparta might be taking hits themselves, they're taking less hits than their opponent - and their opponent isn't getting to hit them back if they use a Rally.


Which creates a situation where players didn't particularly want to Rally, which just made the lines even more brittle. There was none of the stubborn back and forth I wanted - after two or three turns, the whole line would disintegrate. And heaven forbid the Sparta of our example had the Initiative marker, and could take two turns in a row - that would be four rounds of combat. It's hard to imagine anyone surviving that.

There were other ways in which the game was too fast. As I mentioned before, the Skirmish/firing action could only be performed prior to the main infantry coming into contact. These skirmishers should be slowing down and harassing the enemy line, and be able to get a few shots in before the main attraction got underway. But it wasn't more than a couple of turns before the gap between the armies was closed. Even while that window was open, the threat of being outflanked was great enough that it made more sense to use the Move side of the chit instead. Especially as the threat of an enemy Move plus Combat created the possibility of you ending up on the wrong end of the tempo combat-wise.

The lines broke too fast, the armies moved too fast, and to top it off, once the armies were in contact, that chit was more or less useless - no more Skirmishing, and no more Move Phases. All that was left was Bonus plus Combat/Rally. Why wouldn't you do anything other than spam Bonus plus Combat? There was no angst. The whole point of the Command markers - the high-level system around which the whole game was structured - was moot.

I knew that I needed to slow it down. The first thing to do would be to staunch the bleeding - to make Rally more viable and those Wings more resilient. I kept finding myself wishing I could do Rally and Combat on the same turn, and that seemed like a good place to start: I uncoupled Rally from Combat, placing them on separate markers. Now a Wing on the ropes had three potential options. They could Bonus and Rally to ensure their success, they could Rally and Combat to recover while still hitting back, or they could Bonus and Combat to hit them harder. That last one was still too bloody, so I nerfed it; instead of two Combat Phases, Bonus plus Combat gave you one Combat Phase with an advantageous die roll modifier.

Now I had my back and forth, the pushing and shoving, the morale that starts to waver before it finally and decisively breaks. There remained the question though of what to put on the reverse side of the uncoupled Rally and Combat chits. My options given the available actions were Move-Rally and Combat-Skirmish, or Rally-Skirmish and Move-Combat. The latter would make it impossible to move and fight on the same turn, which in turn would make it harder to exploit holes in the enemy line or to "shuffle" units around the flank in an unrealistic and ahistorical manner. Suddenly, a player who had made a dent had to make a choice: stay put and keep fighting, or maneuver for an advantage. This made the tempo a lot more interesting, and it helped to slow it down.

It also made Skirmishing much more viable. Instead of choosing between firing at the enemy or maneuvering to prevent outflanking, the Wing could do both on the same turn. This also made much more sense thematically, as part of the job of the line of skirmishers was to protect the main line and prevent those kind of flanking maneuvers. In fact, it seemed to make it a little too viable, making the main line too agile and flexible.

A couple of tweaks took care of this. First, I made it so that if a Move Phase was the second phase in a turn, the moving Wing only moved at half-speed. So if Bonus and Move were used, the first Move Phase would be at full speed, but the second at only half that. But this also applied to other pairings. Both the Skirmish and Rally Phases happen before the Move Phase, which means that the Move Phase will always be second; a Wing that Skirmishes or Rallies is sacrificing headlong speed to do so.

The other tweak was that I added "Skirmish Zones" for each Wing, which reduce enemy movement to a single point per phase. This meant that as armies got closer together, their advance started to slow down, and there were more opportunities for the enemy to Skirmish. (Skirmishing is also doubly effective within these zones.)

Now, each battle had two clear and distinct stages: a maneuver and skirmishing phase, in which the two armies try to come to grips with one another, and the clash of arms once they've done so. This felt a lot more like a hoplite battle. The game needed to be slower, and because I made it slower, it now has better decisions and more of them. It has the right rhythm, the right tempo, the right arc: the right pacing.

Granted, it plays in about an hour now, so I'd hardly call it a long game…


  • Thanks for your insight into the design process and your goals for the game. I’m definitely buying this one!

    Brent Oman

  • You have my attention! And I think one hour sounds about perfect (at least as far as I’m concerned).


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