Mary Russell

I had a problem: my chaotic little freebie game that I designed to end suddenly was ending suddenly.

That probably requires some explanation. As you probably know, every year I do a small promotional game that we give away during our end-of-year Hollandays Sale. This year's game is Reign of Witches, which views the Quasi War (1798-1800) through the lens of factional politics within the Federalist Party, cast as a struggle between President John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. Neither side is really "controlling" events, but rather reacting to events that are outside their control, and seeking to capitalize on them.

Players purchase cards from a market in a style reminiscent of the Pax series: there are four spots, costing zero, one, two, or three coins, and when a card is bought, other cards are shifted down and a replacement drawn. Once a card is purchased, it can be played into a tableau where it provides influence in three categories. These cards can also be activated for special abilities. To win the game, they not only have to best their opponent in at least two of the three categories, but must have a higher total score than the non-player Thomas Jefferson. If, in their bitter in-fighting, they fail to beat Jefferson, then he wins the 1800 election and both players lose (the historical result, and the most likely one).

Jefferson's score is tied to four special "Tricolor" event cards. One of these, 18 Brumaire, ends the game when it is resolved and begins the game at the bottom of the deck. Three others are shuffled into the deck at set-up, and one of these - Yellow Fever - prompts a reshuffling of discards into the deck, which will likely bring 18 Brumaire closer to the top of the deck, hastening the end of the game.

This theoretically gave the game a lot of variance. A short game, in which Yellow Fever is the first Tricolor to come up, and 18 Brumaire appears soon after the reshuffle, gives Jefferson a lower score but gives the players less time to build a tableau to overcome it. A longer game that sees all four Tricolors get resolved would give the players more time, but also result in a more difficult Jefferson score to beat.

I say "theoretically" because those shorter games were a lot more common than the longer ones, and those longer ones didn't feel much longer. Partially this had to do with how the Tricolors were originally resolved: as soon as they moved into the zero cost spot in the market, they immediately took effect and were activated. So, if the Tricolor card was in the one spot, and someone bought the card in the zero spot, you'd be drawing two cards at the end of the turn. My friend Travis D. Hill suggested I slow this down - the Tricolor card would take effect if it was still in the zero spot at the end of a player's turn - which worked a charm.

But another part of the problem is that I just didn't have enough cards, and that was a function of its intended purpose as a free game. Every copy that we give away, we do so at a financial loss, and so naturally, we try to limit the cost per copy. Last year's freebie, The Toledo War, had twenty cards. Two of these covered the rules, three served as "spaces" to fight over, and fifteen were shuffled in the deck. I initially designed Reign of Witches with a similar form factor in mind: eighteen cards in the deck, and two for the rules. Four of those eighteen cards were the Tricolor events, which left fourteen.

Of those fourteen, however, eight started the game outside of the deck: four to form the initial market, and two each to form initial player hands. That left only six non-Tricolor cards in the deck, and that was the root of my pacing problem. If you shuffle three Tricolor cards into a remaining deck of only six, those Tricolors have a very good chance of showing up sooner rather than later. The sooner Yellow Fever shows up, the fewer discards there are to shuffle back into the deck, and the more likely it is that 18 Brumaire will rear its ugly head. My "longer" matches were only longer by a handful of turns, and didn't really feel much different than a shorter one.

The solution, of course, was to add five more cards. Instead of having only six non-Tricolor cards remaining in the deck after initial set-up, I would have eleven - nearly double. If you're new around these parts, you probably figure I did some complicated analysis of the probabilities to determine, scientifically, that I needed five new cards instead of say four or six. But really, all there is to it is that five new cards bring the total from twenty to twenty-five, and multiples of five are easy to deal with. Honestly, the only math that was involved was knowing that a deck of twenty-five cards costs 25% more than a deck of twenty and increases the weight of each deck by a third of an ounce, which will impact our shipping costs - neither of which I was particularly happy about.

But it seemed to do the trick. On average, the games got longer: there were more discards to shuffle back into the deck when Yellow Fever showed up, and it took a little longer for 18 Brumaire to appear. But the average wasn't nearly as important to me as the spread. I didn't want longer games: I wanted longer games and shorter games and in-between games. Games where the players would never quite be sure if they'd have enough time and resources to play that card they just bought. Games where the players could exert some limited influence over the tempo of the game, helping to slow it down or speed it up. Games that felt different from one another.

And I think the twenty-five card deck pulls this off.  In the old twenty card iteration of the design, players generally ended up with three or four cards in their tableau. Because of that, every one of those cards really needed to count, and only a certain narrow number of strategies were worth pursuing. But now, players end up with anywhere from four to eight cards in their tableau, and approaches that work for a short game won't necessarily work for a longer one (or vice-versa) - and of course, the trick is, you won't know which is which. This emphasizes the limits of the agency and foresight of the historical actors, and I think the result is something more evocative of history as it is lived rather than observed.

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