THE FEEL OF THE THING (by Tom Russell)

Mary Russell


A couple weeks back, I was talking with my friend Rick, and the topic drifted to Mark Herman's Empire of the Sun, a game I am in the very slow process of learning. It's not necessarily a complicated game: each piece in isolation is easy enough to understand, it's just holding all those pieces simultaneously in the old noggin that I'm still getting used to.

Anyway, in the conversation, Rick mentioned the Inter-Service Rivalry Rule that sometimes puts certain limitations on the ability of Navy and Army forces to cooperate. Having been a Navy man himself, Rick could attest that those same rivalries were still alive and well. He said something along the lines of, "Why did no one think of this before? It's an important part of the story, but there are dozens of games, going back decades, that don't even think about it. There's a reason I'm going to keep playing Empire, and a reason I'm probably not going to dig out Double-ya Double-ya Two Game With Bog Standard Move-Combat Rules That We're Not Mentioning By Name Because That Would be Impolite And Also Tom Forgot What It Was Called Colon 1941 - 1945 ever again. That game has the map, and the order of battle, but it doesn't really tell the story."

I agreed. "And here's the thing about that rule: it's such a little thing, such a simple thing, but it does so much. You don't need a complicated sub-system with DRMs and charts, you don't need a lot of detail to actually tell the story. You just need the one line, the one rule, the thing that gives you the feel of the thing." 

"It's that one wrinkle, and it changes the whole decision space."

That reminded me of my solo civ-builder I have in development, Ensi. As I wrote in some previous blog-things, and as I told Rick, one of the things that bugs me about civ games is that there's no sense of internal pressure. Every government that's ever existed in human history has had factions tearing at each other from the inside, everyone with their own reasons and agendas, and in almost every civ game everyone in the kingdom is this monolithic extension of your will. Maybe the people revolt if you don't have enough happy points or whatever, but that's not the same thing (and is kinda problematically paternalistic in and of itself, but that's neither here nor there). 

In the game, I have two factions: red activates red cards and blue, blue cards. Cards are built in a three-by-three grid, and the color partially determines what can be built over what. There's an incentive to build somewhat evenly, so that you get the maximum use out of your administrative apparatus, but it might be expedient politically and economically to go heavy for one side or the other. The problem is that suddenly it becomes much harder to build good cards for the other faction, or to take meaningful actions with them, and all of this will make it more likely that your civilization will collapse from the inside, or will be unable to deal with external threats. 

And, you know, this isn't a complicated or detailed simulation. It's just a couple of simple rules - each faction activates cards of their own color, and cards are usually built over cards of the same color - but it has a lot of consequences. Assuming I pull it off, it should give the player the sense of those internal pressures that I feel are so vital to the story I want to tell. It's that one wrinkle that Rick and I were talking about. 

More and more, I think the secret of this whole game design racket is coming up with those kinds of rules, with trying to capture the feel of something in a single clean stroke.

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