Mary Russell

It doesn't really bother me when people slag on my games. My games are often somewhat experimental and can be abrasive, so I can't expect everyone to dig them. Honestly, I'm surprised whenever a game does resonate with a larger audience. As long as the people who like the game like it, I don't really care about the folks that don't - and our production model gives me that luxury.

That's not to say that I ignore the bad notices; quite the contrary! Negative feedback forces me to question my work - gives me useful doubts. This, in turn, helps me better articulate what I'm aiming for, and, as I move forward to new projects, helps me hit the mark with greater accuracy. In terms of process (if not necessarily sales!), I get just as much out of folks who don't click with my work as folks who do.

One criticism I've come across in recent months is that you don't play one of my games, it plays you. The implication is that you have no meaningful decisions to make - only obvious ones - and that the outcome of the game is determined entirely by the cards you are dealt or the dice that you roll. Obviously, I don't think this is the case, and neither do the people who enjoy whichever game is under discussion. But I do spend quite a bit of time thinking about why the folks who think the game plays you, think the game plays you.

The most uncharitable answer is that they're playing the game rather poorly. That's not really their fault; most of my games are difficult to play well. A key skill in This Guilty Land, for example, is being able to get cards to come out of the deck when you want cards, and preventing them from coming out of the deck when you don't want your opponent to get cards. The first time you play the game, this will probably seem impossible and needlessly capricious - like you have no control over it, and therefore no agency. As this skill develops over repeated plays, so does one's sense of control and agency, though even with experience it is often a matter of trying to operate complicated machinery that's been slathered with butter. That's the challenge; that's the game.

I'm aware however that not everyone thinks this is a fun or interesting challenge. They'd rather work that machine without all that butter getting in the way. Someone who likes my games once said that what he found interesting was the restrictions they place on the players. He said that they often boil down to the question, "Given these constraints, how do you win?", and I found that a rather interesting way to look at my games, but I'm also aware that there are folks who find those constraints too cumbersome.

I think it has to do with a psychological impulse that is in many ways central to how we approach competitive games. Players like to feel clever, powerful, and graceful, and many games exist to create moments in which they can do so: building an economic engine and then turning its crank, chaining together killer combos and big turns, surrounding the enemy and then starting to squeeze. A piece of advice nascent designers hear again and again is that you don't want to get in the way of the cool, fun stuff your players want to do - in fact, you should "find the fun" and focus solely on the cool, fun stuff, sweeping away anything that doesn't support and reinforce that. Players want to be lithe, graceful ballerinas; you don't want to strap barbells to their legs.

Except that I do - for me, the barbells are kind of the point, especially within the context of a serious historical game. In all of human history, in every military or political conflict or crisis, everyone is swept up by events beyond their control and comprehension. Whether they be a king or a peasant, they exercise only a small measure of agency, reacting to developments and seeking to either mitigate or exploit them. Everyone is an opportunist: no one is ever the master of their own fate. (Bonaparte played this game better than most, whereas Louis XVI perhaps felt that the game played him.) All of us living in what will one day be called history - whether our times are peaceful or tumultuous - are attempting to fouette with hundred pound weights on each limb. This is essential to understanding and engaging with history in a meaningful way, and is something I try to evoke in my work, especially as it moves toward higher variability.

1 comment

  • I’ve played two of your games: This Guilty Land and Supply Lines (Northern). Neither worked for me. TGL actually made me quite frustrated in playing it. Perhaps this was just a bad fit between player and game. Yet, I’m really happy that you make games the way you do and try all the things you do in games. It is a big boon to this community that you make these games and I wish you all the best in your work. Hopefully I’ll find one or more of your games that resonates with me.


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