One of the projects I've got in my hamper is my multiplayer negotiation game on the Peace of Westphalia. The short version is that these various political entities are trying to disentangle themselves from a costly and ruinous war, but they're trying to do so in a way that's advantageous to them - and so, as the negotiations drag on for months and years, they are still campaigning, angling for a decisive battle or a territorial gain that will strengthen their bargaining position (and, when they've suffered a loss, dragging their feet diplomatically in hopes they'll be able to reverse their fortunes). It's a ghoulish kind of logic: to end the war, they must prolong it. It was this dynamic that drew me to the topic. And it certainly seemed that an asymmetrical multiplayer negotiation game with a military element would be interesting enough to find an audience.
The problem I was facing - and I wrote about this once before in another of these blog-things - is that what I was coming up with was a game that seated seven players, and only seven players. Each of the game's seven powers had a complicated relationship with the others, and served as a balance against them. Remove a power or two or three from the mix, and suddenly the whole thing falls apart. I started to experiment with a scheme that would allow one or more players to control multiple powers. But for one thing, that's a very dodgy proposition in a negotiation game.
For another, I think the moment you put out a game that seats from four to seven, you're basically going to guarantee that no one will ever be playing it at seven. They'll play it at four, and will play what is at most an approximation of the game play experience I had designed for seven. Then the game would be judged by that standard - like the time Mary and I saw Tar Tre.
When the first of the new Star Trek movies came out, Mary and I went to see it at the theater, and finding it reasonably entertaining, we decided to see it again when it came to the dollar show. Unfortunately, the theater projected the film in the wrong aspect ratio, so that on either side a sizable portion of the image was lopped off. Hence, when the film's title came on the screen, it didn't say STAR TREK; it said TAR TRE. But it wasn't only the title that was altered. The original film had a number of two-shots that saw Kirk on one side of the frame and Spock on the other - which made sense, since they were co-leads. But in Tar Tre, Kirk always seemed to be just off to the side of the frame in those shots, a disembodied presence. It radically altered the feel of the thing, making it a story only about Spock. Unfortunately this version of the film had the same number of lens flares.
A four-player version of my Westphalia game would be a bit like Tar Tre: diminished, altered, and not at all in line with my intentions. And slowly over the last few weeks, I started to convince myself that it would be better for the game to not scale - if it only worked at seven, then it should only be played at seven, and there should be no options for ever playing with less than seven.
But that still left the underlying problem of trying to sell the thing. Now, if you have even a passing familiarity with our catalogue, you know that we aren't super-concerned with appealing to the broadest possible market. We publish a lot of oddball stuff, and our model lets us do so without the normally concomitant financial consequences. We can (and have) published games just because we wanted to, and as long as we keep our art costs down, we're likely to make a profit on even the most uncommercial of projects. At the same time, I can't pretend that I'm completely indifferent to a game's commercial success or lack thereof, and for my own designs in particular, a major factor in deciding if a game is a good use of my time and energy is how often and how many people will be able to get it on the table.
And so the question wasn't so much how can I make this scale, because again, I had decided against scalability, but rather, is it worth it to make and publish such a game in the first place? And of course I wasn't grappling with this question all on my lonesome, because one of the perks of spending all day working side-by-side with Mary is that I have someone to talk with about all this arty-farty game design stuff. (Whether or not she considers listening to me prattle on about this stuff to be a "perk" remains an open question.)
Alex the Not As Great As Mary
One reason why we work so well together is that I sometimes have a tendency to make things more complicated than they really are, constructing a sort of intellectual Gordian Knot, while Mary, like a certain Macedonian, just hacks right through it: problem solved. The first time we were on a film set together, I was shooting a scene with two characters sitting on a couch. Actually, at that time, a lot of my scenes had two characters sitting on a couch, to the point where the cast joked that during the next film, to make it more cinematic, the couch would be on wheels. Anyway, I do a few takes with the camera dead-on on the two actors, then I repositioned my tripod at one end of the couch - one actor in the foreground, the other in the background. The problem was that there was also a little couch pillow propped up against the arm of the sofa, and it was screwing up my composition. I repositioned the camera; I cranked up the tripod; I spent several minutes trying in vain to frame a shot that didn't have that pillow obscuring much of the action. Mary, who was watching all this from afar, without saying a word, got up from her chair, walked over to the couch, snatched up the pillow, and walked back with it.
Fifteen years and one wedding later, I told Mary what I was thinking with the Westphalia game. It didn't make sense to chase after scalability, but I wasn't sure if it made sense to spend time, energy, and money designing and publishing a game that only worked for seven. Mary nodded, took a sip of water, then said, "Make it six."
She went on: "A lot of games only go up to six, so most game groups naturally max out at six. It's fine to have a 'static' player count - there are games that only work for two, or three, or four. It just can't be such a weird count like seven."
As usual, that was good advice. And while I wasn't quite sure how the heck I could make it work for six, that seemed like a lot less daunting of a problem than trying to make the game scale across multiple player counts.
As anyone who has designed a game can tell you, every little thing ties into every other little thing, so if you make an adjustment here it's going to ripple out and touch everything else - and that goes double for a game with asymmetrical factions intended to act as checks on one another's ambitions. So as I started looking at how I might cut one faction, I wasn't necessarily looking for how to do so without altering the rest of the design - that would be impossible - but rather, which cut would result in the most interesting redesign of the game. And I settled on the answer to that question almost immediately - so much so that the next day I let Mary know that she was absolutely correct, and that the game would be for six.
So, the 7P version of the design had four Major Powers - Austria, Spain, France, and Sweden - and three Minor Powers - Bavaria, the Dutch Republic, and Saxony. These seven positions were further grouped into several overlapping categories; for example, there are Catholic Powers (Austria, Spain, Bavaria, and France) and Protestant Powers (Sweden, the Dutch Republic, and Saxony), as well as Powers that belonged to the Holy Roman Empire (Austria, Bavaria, Saxony, and Sweden - sort of). Austria had to ensure victories for Bavaria and Saxony if it wanted to win, while France needed to do the same for the Dutch Republic and Sweden.
"Johann Georg I, Prince-Elector of Saxony", Frans Luycx, 1652. AKA Beer George.
And all of that is more or less the same, only Saxony no longer factors into it. In some ways, it was a hard cut to make, because Saxony was something of a stand-in for Protestant interests within the Holy Roman Empire (as opposed to the invading Protestant Power Sweden). I also have a strange and completely inexplicable fondness for Saxony's ruler, Johann Georg I, who was bad at pretty much everything except hunting, eating, and drinking, the latter earning him the nickname "Beer George".
But what probably made it hurt most of all was that Saxony was the only one of the seven Powers to be non-belligerent. By the time that negotiations got underway, Saxony had stopped fighting, making a separate peace with the Empire's enemies. So in the game, Saxony didn't have a military presence; its position was meant to be one of pure negotiation. And, because like I said all these things are interrelated, the non-military nature of Saxony's position meant that the military element had to be relatively light and abstract. Otherwise the Saxony player would spend a lot of time waiting and twiddling their thumbs, and might feel like they weren't really part of the game. Even with a relatively light military element, that risk still existed, and was one of the design problems I was expending a lot of my effort on.
But cutting Saxony from the game entirely solves that problem rather nicely, and enables me to give the military element something closer to equal weight with the negotiations by going a little more granular. I would need to find another way to represent Protestant interests within the empire - one that, so far, appears to do a lot more with a lot less, which is usually the kind of thing I aim for! And, of course, and perhaps most importantly, it will give the game a workable player count. Yes, it's still stubbornly static - six and only six! - but it's much more likely to actually see a table than a game for seven.
I'm sure some folks will read all this and scratch their chin and say, yes, yes, of course, kill your darlings, which I think is actually the wrong lesson to take from all this, because sometimes your darlings are the whole point - especially when you make aggressively weird board games for a niche market. But sometimes you can tie something up in a knot and get stuck, and you need a Mary to chop through it. That doesn't solve the problem by itself - because now you have all these frayed edges and strands that you need to find some new way to reconnect. But it's often easier to do that than to try and work around the knot.