STACKS (by Tom Russell)

Mary Russell

One of the worst gaming experiences I ever had was when Mary and I (long before Hollandspiele) got roped into playtesting a tactical game. And by tactical I don't mean a game where the decisions are largely tactical in nature - in many ways, granular right-now immediate decisions are kinda my whole thing - but rather tactical as in one of those games about small units fighting over possession of a single building or hilltop, the sorts of games with complicated LOS rules and op-fire and everything else that comes with it. Such games are very much not in my wheelhouse; I've watched people play Advanced Squad Leader with a mixture of horror and fascination but there's no way I'm ever going to play it myself.

The point being that we were a singularly bad choice to playtest a game at that scale, and we said as much but the publisher needed someone to do it so we were it. It actually was pretty simple and streamlined as far as those sorts of games go, but for a very specific definition of "simple and streamlined". The rules ran for maybe eight pages, which is over twenty times fewer pages than ASL.

But actually playing the game was anything but "simple and streamlined"; in fact, it was downright cumbersome. What it came down to is that you could have up to two Units and a Leader in a hex (okay, that's three counters, that's reasonable). Each of these Units could be affixed with up to two status markers - so, at a maximum, we now have seven counters in the hex. The game featured Transport Units, which could themselves each transport two Units, and so you could technically have two Transports each with two status markers each holding two Units each with two status markers, plus a Leader, for a grand total of nineteen counters in a single hex.

We didn't get the stack quite that high, but we got close enough, and spent a lot of time carefully sorting through this stack or that one to ascertain which units were suppressed and which were disrupted and who was transporting who, which marker went with which units, and the long and short of it is that neither of us were quite sure what was in our stacks or what we were trying to do with them. A bit of clumsiness on my part toppled one of those ungainly towers of cardboard, turning it into a messy and scattered pile, and that's when we ended the game.

And I'm not going to say that the stacking limits in those hexes were wrong - "something-something frontage something-something" - or that two status afflictions per counter was too granular for what the game was trying to model. From a simulation viewpoint, there was no doubt very sound rationale behind those design decisions. What I am saying though is that there was a problem with the way these things were implemented - that it didn't take into account the structural stability of a stack of counters or the capacity of the average human's memory. It was streamlined theoretically but in practical terms it was clunky and frustrating.

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