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RESOLVE (by Tom Russell)

Mary Russell

The decision to publish For-Ex was not one that was made lightly. I knew from the start, from the very first prototype, that this was a really weird game, with a really small audience. Part of why we started Hollandspiele of course was so that Mary and I could publish really weird games with really small audiences, but even so, I was very hesitant about putting For-Ex out into the world. Mary always believed it in, though, and in October we finally started taking orders for it. And we were pleasantly surprised when it became our fastest-selling game.

We were also a little nervous. Because like I said, this is a weird game. And in the six months or so leading up to its release, we kept hammering that point: this is a weird game. It's an incredibly fragile game, quite unlike anything else I've done. And yet, if you approach it from another angle, it's very much of a piece with my other games, many of which are intentionally fragile. Several of my games, whether they're about trains or about regiments on a battlefield, begin with an equilibrium which the players distort through their actions. They have the capacity to break if the players aren't careful; they're pumped and primed to go lopsided the second someone blinks, so the key of course is not to blink, or to blink at the right moment. And yet For-Ex is different in that the distortion potential is much more pronounced, and players are likely to stumble into it by accident.

One phenomenon that's stricken some groups is that the Contract Queue gets filled completely, and then no one wants to Resolve, because if they do, they are in turn allowing the person sitting next to them to grab another Contract. Players would do anything they could in order to not Resolve, taking an investment, any investment, to avoid the hot potato. And as a result, there have been several gamers who felt that the Resolve action is weak or, if they're feeling more virulent, broken. There's no incentive for them to Resolve, and because Resolving is the timer of the game, it grinds to a halt. The game breaks down with optimal play.

And, perhaps unwisely, I jumped into a discussion of this online. I pointed out that if "optimal play" creates a game state in which every player's choices are tightly conscribed, then by definition it's not optimal play. Optimal play would take the form of making moves that incentivize other players to make moves that would give you the most options on your turn. The players are by their actions creating an environment. They're manipulating the market, not just in terms of the values of the currencies, but also in terms of the richness and openness of the decision space.

Some folks felt that this was impossible to do: that as soon as you try to open something up, someone else will shut it down, and that all the other someone elses at your table have no incentive to do anything but shut it down. And that's true unless they also see it as being in their self-interest to open it up. Which it is, unless it isn't. Because if a player has been able to hammer out an advantage over his rivals, it might perhaps be in his interest to conscribe their choices (and his own) because that game state will favor him in the end. The other players of course can unravel this situation fairly quickly, if they can see that the alternative favors the first guy.

If you have a four-player game, and the Contracts are full-up, and one player is benefiting from this and the others aren't, the other three players could, for example, Resolve in sequence: Resolve, Resolve, Resolve. They might even do this twice in a row. The question then becomes, why would that first player Resolve? The guy next to him is just going to take out a Contract, and then the first guy has wasted his turn. Well, the first guy is only going to Resolve if he thinks the second guy is smart enough to follow his lead.

When a lot of players talk about "optimal play" and "assuming players are rational actors", a lot of time what they're saying is, "I assume all the players at the table will act selfishly, out of naked self-interest." And if all the players do that, never giving an inch, then, yes, the market - again, conceptualizing the market less as the values of this or that but rather as the general health and openness of the game state - will collapse. And that makes sense, because in real-life, when the "players" act like sociopaths, pursuing maximum profit and advantage, a given market will collapse. And generally there is very little in real-life to prevent this collapse or to self-correct (save through regulation); a market, after all, is a human concept, and has no agency of its own. There is a custodial aspect at the heart of it. The players in For-Ex are responsible for the health of the market, and perhaps there is an onus for them to work together to maintain its health. Or perhaps there isn't. 

A lot of people found my answers to be frustratingly vague and ambiguous. "Is it a cutthroat competitive game, like you said here, or is it a cooperative game, like you said there?" Well, it's both, and at the same time, and some folks feel that it can't be both. But the game is intended not only to embody these contradictions, but to generate a tension between them - how cutthroat can you be without creating a situation where you cut yourself off at the knees, how much should you work with others without getting them rich at your expense?

The Resolve action can be very strong, in that advancing the game clock is better than taking a bad investment or divesting at the wrong time. Investments should be made carefully, with the intention of distorting specific currency values (except for when it makes sense to take a bad investment), and divesting should be made for maximum impact (except for when it makes sense to divest for minimal impact).  The Resolve action can be very weak, a poison pill that you mercilessly force other players to swallow again and again. The game situation people have described is absolutely possible, and in some circumstances, it can be advantageous - though usually only for one player. (Which, again, means it's in the interest of those other players to prevent that situation from happening in the first place.) 

More than anything else that I've done, the game is what the players make it. And that kind of open-endedness, and that kind of responsibility, it's not for everyone. When folks expressed their frustration with these aspects of the game, I said that it could be that the game just isn't for them, that they're not the audience for the game. This really rubbed a lot of people the wrong way; they found it disappointing and condescending. Obviously that wasn't my intention.

The designer refuses to acknowledge an issue with the Resolve action, instead blaming it on a mismatch of audience to game. Someone wrote that online, and to be honest it felt like a punch to the gut. But, for me, there's not an "issue" with Resolve because it's there intentionally. The way Resolve works in the game as published is what creates the onus for players to manage the health of the marketplace, and to look at each other as partners rather than rivals. It also creates the potential for destructive play in contrast, in that a player can try to tank the marketplace when they're ahead, and to not work with the other players, as he can count on them also not to work with each other to take him down a peg. It creates a framework for trust and for betrayal, and the game state is fuzzy enough that it doesn't lend itself to the kind of cold calculus of "okay, I can afford to be constructive until I have this much money, at which point I need to turn on a dime". 

These dynamics and tensions are at the core of the design: that's what the game is interested in exploring, and is built to explore. If that sounds "irrational", or like "there's no incentive structure", then no, you're really not the audience for the game.

And that's okay. There are dozens and dozens of other heavy economics games where unbridled self-interest is rewarded without consequences, and where you only help others if (1) it helps you more or (2) you have no alternative. I didn't make For-Ex to be one of those games. If For-Ex was one of those games, I think I'd have been much less hesitant about publishing it, and much less nervous about its reception. 

Because, deep-down, I think I knew that this game would be divisive. It's similar in some respects to my Winsome title Northern Pacific, which has its passionate defenders and detractors, and often inspired people to wonder if it was really a game at all. The reception to For-Ex has been largely positive so far; most of the people who I've heard from or who have rated the game on BGG have enjoyed it, and even some of those folks who feel that Resolve is hopelessly broken and that I'm hopelessly deluded still enjoy the game despite this and have ranked it highly.

But I've been grappling with the Resolve discussion over the last two or three weeks. It's taken up a lot of my time and my mental bandwidth. Sometimes I feel quite pugilistic about it and want to double-down, other times I feel much more conciliatory. And it's weird for me because I don't think I'm usually one to wear things on my sleeve, so to speak. It doesn't usually bother me all that much when folks don't dig my games. Like I said, Northern Pacific was very divisive, but the negative side of the equation didn't bug me all that much. (Though I'll admit I was irked by the "is this really even a game?" debates.) All my games, to some degree or another, are idiosyncratic, operating on wavelengths with varying degrees of peculiarity, so it makes sense that not everyone's going to be receptive to it.

So why did the negative reaction surrounding these aspects of For-Ex throw me for a loop? I think partially it's because some folks felt like we had put one over on them, that if they had known that the game was like this, they never would have bought it. This was compounded by the fact that we made considerable efforts over a number of blog posts, podcasts, interviews, and even the back-of-the-box advertising copy to tell people that this was a weird and unusual game that wasn't for everyone. That its appeal was too niche even for train gamers, and that the people that they played games with would hate it. So it was very frustrating to be saying that, repeatedly and consistently, and to even say things like "you think we're joking, but we're really very serious, it's really that weird", and to have people buy it and then turn around and say, "Whoa, whoa, whoa, I wish I had known this before I bought it." Commiserating on twitter with Edward of Heavy Cardboard, who had likewise tried to warn people that the game would only appeal to a small subset of their own group, I said that "We're like the little old man that lives near the abandoned summer camp, warning the horny teenagers to stay away from that economics game."

The other part of it, though, is that For-Ex is easily the weirdest of my games. It makes no concessions to commercial considerations. It offers no assistance to players and instead punishes them harshly for transgressions they don't understand that they've made. It's a game that I didn't see a market for, and so didn't want to design, but one that I had to design - that I felt an almost mystical compulsion to bring into the world, kicking and screaming and stubborn and so remarkably, unmistakably itself, refusing to bend or to turn into something more palpable. And so of course I fell in love with the thing, and of course I feel protective of it in a way that's almost paternal.

That's my kid you're talking about, buddy; I know he's not like the other kids.

2 comments

  • Thanks for the kind note and Christmas wishes, Christopher.

    Tom

  • I think my Christmas wish for you is that you sell so many games that lots and of different people can hate different things about each one while still keeping a BGG average above seven.

    It’s kind of a tribute to how well it’s being received that your perception of 2/3 hating it might be true but the people it’s targeted for are still enjoying it overall.

    Christopher Peters

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