Most of my games play in an hour or less. A small handful of games top out at two. And off the top of my pretty little head I can think of exactly two of my designs that take about three hours – Charlemagne, Master of Europe and Supply Lines of the American Revolution: The Northern Theater, 1775-1777, and heck, that last one, getting through the title alone takes about ten minutes. The games that eventually followed each of those releases – last year’s Aurelian, Restorer of the World and 2018’s Supply Lines of the American Revolution: The Southern Strategy – were both much quicker. This is especially pronounced with Aurelian, which has half as many turns as Charlemagne, and is absent its older sibling’s set piece battle system, usually unfolds in about forty-five minutes.
After its release, I heard from a few folks who felt Aurelian was an obvious improvement over Charlemagne. I don’t know if I agree with that; they’re different games trying to do different things. I had a couple people ask me if there was any way that the battle system from Charlemagne – which usually involved a couple dozen die rolls or more – could be replaced with the one from Aurelian – which resolved the whole thing in one. That way they would be able to play Charlemagne in about half the time.
The thing about the Charlemagne battle system though is that it isn’t really about the battles so much as it is about army management – balancing the unit types and their experience level so as to build and maintain a military force that projects and protects your power (i.e., allows you to meet each turn’s minimum army threshold). The more expensive scara units have clear advantages in combat that the cheaper infantry do not. Aurelian also tests the player’s ability to manage their military resources, only in that game it’s about shifting Legions up and down the Danube to hold back invading Germanic tribes. It doesn’t use the Charlemagne system because that system’s essential function is handled in a different, and period-appropriate, manner.
Even if I could find a way to reduce those battles to a few calculations and a single die roll, and even if I wanted to do that – and generally I’d much rather build a new game then rehash an old one – I think something would be irrevocably lost if Charlemagne was a shorter game. It has a scope, a sweep, a feeling of being something bigger and grander than its 22 x 17 inch map and its 176 counters. Making it shorter would also make it feel smaller.
Aurelian on the other hand needed to feel small: constrained, constricted, cut short, like you were just getting started and then, poof, suddenly it’s over. Because that’s the story of Aurelian’s reign in a nutshell. He ruled for five years and some change, and spent the bulk of that time reunifying the empire. And when he was assassinated, it wasn’t some ambitious schemer making a power grab – it was a corrupt civil servant who was worried his perfidy was about to come to light. It feels like a sort of punchline. I’m reminded somewhat of what Jackie Kennedy said about her husband’s death: “He didn't even have the satisfaction of being killed for civil rights. It had to be some silly little Communist.” (And now I’m imagining a Roman family gathering together for saturnalia, and that one uncle who mistakes loudness for insight explaining how Aurelian’s death was a Sassanid plot orchestrated by Shapur the Great and “those Christians”. But uncle, you say, oblivious to the silent, tight-lipped glances begging you not to engage, Shapur the Great died before Aurelian even took the purple. “Yes,” your uncle says meaningfully. So, what, are you saying he didn’t die? He chuckles knowingly. “Think logically! I told you, the Sassanids were working with the Christians!” At this point, your sister Agathoclia, a recent catechumen, picks uncomfortably at her plate of roasted dormice. But still you press on. Are you saying that Shapur died, and was resurrected? “No,” says your uncle, greatly agitated. “I’m saying the Christians – sorry, Agathoclia, but it’s the truth – I’m saying the Christians want you to think that Shapur was resurrected! They’ve done it before.” If they want us to think that, then why does everyone think Shapur is dead? Wait. Is Shapur dead? Don’t tell me, I guess that was faked too? Come on, uncle, you can’t really believe this. “You’re asking the wrong questions. What you should be asking is, is Aurelian dead?” At this point your long-suffering aunt starts sobbing uncontrollably, and everyone looks at you like all this is somehow your fault and your pater familias threatens, not for the first time, to exile you to the provinces.)
Brevity is often seen as a virtue, and given how little time a person has to call their own, it often is. But it’s ultimately all relative to the thing and what it aims to do with the time it demands of you: what that time evokes and communicates. I think perhaps evocation is more important than communication.
Here’s an example. When I was a kid, I was a voracious reader. I owned several volumes in the Great Illustrated Classics series, and read them over and over again: Treasure Island, Heidi, Tom Sawyer. I must’ve had twenty of ‘em. After reading David Copperfield in what must have been the third or fourth grade, I proudly told a teacher I had done so – I was at that time the sort that confused being a bookworm with accomplishment - and they mentioned it was a favorite of theirs as well. Their favorite bit was the scene in which a waiter eats the hero’s dinner. They laughed just thinking about the scene, and I stood there, smiling weakly, wondering what on earth they were talking about.
I read the book again that weekend, and I could not for the life of me find the scene with the waiter. That’s when I saw the word ABRIDGED on the back of the book. I hadn’t encountered it before but I was familiar with UNABRIDGED, and I was able to figure it out from there. I discovered, much to my embarrassment, that I hadn’t actually read all those books, but had instead just been given the gist of it. The books communicated what the plot was, and who the characters were, but lost most of what made them worth reading. The language, the mood, the flavor: what it evokes.The trick with these games – whether they are long or short – is to do more then just give the gist, more than just recounting the people and what they did. It’s about conjuring up the often ineffable feel of the thing, and about using time itself to help shape the experience.