THE OPT-POP DIARIES, PART 1 (by Tom Russell)

"Cicero Denounces Catiline", 1888, Cesare Maccari. This is possibly Maccari's most famous work. This fresco for Palazzo Madama in Rome, which had recently become the seat of the new Italian Senate, depicts Cicero's "Oratio in Catilinam Prima in Senatu Habita", his first speech denouncing Catiline in the Roman Senate which drove Catiline from the city in 63 BC. Note the lone, sulky Heathcliff-type on the right - the man Cicero harangues - Catiline.

Ancient Rome is an endlessly fascinating topic, though I’ll admit that for a long time, I was primarily fascinated with the early Imperial period, the two-hundred plus years from the establishment of Augustus’s Principate through the golden age of the Antonines. It took me a while longer to warm up to the periods before and after, and I have podcaster Mike Duncan, and his special enthusiasm for the Roman Republic, to thank for that. The partisan brinksmanship of the late Republic in particular, and the bitter struggle between progressives and conservatives, resonated very deeply.

I’m not going to go so far as to say that I see history as repeating itself, or that my country is the new Rome, or anything as trite as that – and it is trite, because events do not just repeat themselves, but happen in the context of and in reaction to specific times, places, and persons – but there are enough parallels that it helped me to realize that political deadlock is not a new or aberrant thing, but the natural collision of two mutually-exclusive political philosophies that have been locked in combat over the entire course of human political history. There are long stretches where this struggle seems to disappear from the stage, but only in places and times, and under forms of government that, by design, only permit one voice (like a monarchy). There the struggle did not disappear, necessarily, but laid dormant, quiet, seething – dangerously so, as the various revolutions of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries will attest. This struggle is its most visible, and most contentious, in a republic, and it’s a vicious sort of teeter-totter: one side makes progress, the other reverses it and makes progress of its own, then those gains are reversed. Some measures, once established, remain firmly in place, but are eventually subject to being undermined, subtly or otherwise.

This mosaic is part of the Zliten floor mosaic from Libya (then called Leptis Magna), ca. 2nd century AD. Gladiators were armed combatants who entertained audiences during both the Roman Republic and Roman Empire. Gladiatorial games were popular for nearly one thousand years finally declining in the beginning of the 5th century AD shortly after the adoption of Christianity as the official state church.

When this happens, I take some slight comfort in the long view – in the knowledge that this is part of a struggle that’s been going on for over two thousand years. Viewed in that context, rather than in the immediate, short-view term of this election cycle or that one, it’s clear to me that one side is winning, and further that it is the only side that can, ultimately, win. (That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t take work – it does – or that the other side doesn’t have its victories – it does, in the short-term, but that short-term has a real and perhaps incalculable cost in human suffering.) It’s also the only side that should win, morally speaking: these two perfectly-opposed forces present very different views of how society should work, and one of them – my side, of course - is just, and the other is not. Granted, I’m never going to convince someone who embraces the opposing political philosophy of that fact, just like they’re not going to convince me to abandon mine.

Because you might have a very different view than I do, and because one of the most enduring oddities of consim gaming is that it inevitably and completely removes politics from war, the most extreme of political acts and the ultimate expression of political will, I’m not going to get into the specifics of my politics. (After all, one doesn’t win over and keep customers by alienating them!)

"La Morte di Cesare", 1804-05, Vincenzo Camuccini. Perhaps the most famous popularis, Julius Caesar, and his fellow populares, favored the cause of the common man (plebeians). Although patricians themselves, they supported laws to provide grain to the poor at a subsidized price. They also sought reforms which would further help the poor, particularly land redistribution to farm and debt relief. They were opposed by the Optimates, composed of such notable figures as Brutus, Cicero, Cato the Younger and Pompey.

All of this is to say that, as a political animal, and a game designer, and someone with an interest in Roman history, I took a look at that clash between progressive and conservative, populist and elite, Populares and Optimates, a violent and partisan deadlock that fed into cynical self-interest and power-lust, and thus ultimately destroyed the Roman Republic, and I thought, you know, there’s a game in there. Since it would be covering a hundred years or so in a relatively short period of time, I knew it would have a high level of abstraction, and so I figured I could knock out such a simple game in a few weeks.

Now, to clarify that a little, I felt that I could construct the basic form of the game, the bones and sinew of it, the moving parts, within the space of a few weeks; the testing, refining, revising, and developing of the game would invariably take much longer. But the broad strokes, the foundation, that much I felt I could sketch out rather quickly. That proved to be overly optimistic, as my first few attempts failed spectacularly.

A reconstruction of Porchester, located in the English county of Hampshire, during Roman occupation. This was one of many forts the Romans built to guard the coast against pirates. A medieval castle now stands within the walls of the Roman fort. The typical 3rd century Roman D-shaped towers still stand.

I think part of the reason for that is that I’m more of a borrower than an innovator. My talent isn’t for coming up with new things whole cloth, but for working within existing systems, mechanisms, and traditions. Folks seemed to dig Agricola, Master of Britain and found its cup adjustment mechanism to be new and exciting, and sure, I’ll take credit for that when modesty doesn’t get the better of me, but the combat, movement, scoring, and sequence of play are all derived from the innovations of other designers. And that’s fine – I don’t have a problem with that. A lot of my designs use hex grids and EZOCs, and one of the reasons why I can be as prolific as I am is that I’m working within existing traditions rather than trying to reinvent the wheel.

Of course, you can’t really do a political game with an odds-based CRT. I mean, you can; Dunnigan did it, with Origins of World War II, but the results were underwhelming and only serve to illustrate the impracticality of the esteemed Mr. Dunnigan’s one-size-fits-all approach to wargaming. (Meaning zero offense to Mr. Dunnigan, whose accomplishments I think far outweigh his missteps.) There are, of course, other political games, but many of them are explicitly about running a political campaign – 1960 and Die Macher being prominent examples. Games about the act of governing tend to be multiplayer, alliance- and coalition-building affairs, games about negotiating that balance between public good and personal gain. These are games where negotiation, compromise, and finding common ground is key, games that present an ideal version of how a republic should work. This makes them poor models for the kind of absolute, to-the-death political struggle that took place amid the death throes of the highly dysfunctional Roman Republic. Beyond that, games about the workings of a modern republic would be a poor source to borrow from as modern republics bear little resemblance to the ad-hoc patchwork of overlapping assemblies and magistrates. I (didn't necessarily want to get into all the fine details and legalese of calling this assembly or that one. Each legislative body could only vote on proposals made by the presiding magistrate, so to simplify the process enough to make a compelling two-player game of it, I concentrated legislative power in game terms in the hands of the major magistrates themselves - the consuls and the tribune.)

Because of all that stuff above, I couldn't draw as heavily or directly from existing systems as I have in the past (though I'm sure you can trace each of the game's mechanisms back to some design or another). I couldn't, for example, take huge chunks from an existing political-themed game the same way I could borrow concepts like move, combat, retreat, advance from hex-and-counter games. This resulted in a lot of trial and error on my part (mostly error), and in this series of articles I'll be looking at these missteps, at aspects of the design, and at the rationale behind them.

See Part 2 of The Opt-Pop Diaries

See Part 3 of The Opt-Pop Diaries

See Part 4 of The Opt-Pop Diaries

See Part 5 of The Opt-Pop Diaries

See Part 6 of The Opt-Pop Diaries



  • Tom, I’m surprised you didn’t make this a 2-to-4 player game. Why only 2 player? (You could have done a Mark Herman’s Pericles thing, where you have multiple factions on the same side, but only one ultimate winner.


  • I’m only cagey in a public space; in private, I’m very vocal about my politics. :-)

    And, yes, one of the things that attracts me to your work are those aspects.

    Tom Russell

  • “Because you might have a very different view than I do, and because one of the most enduring oddities of consim gaming is that it inevitably and completely removes politics from war, the most extreme of political acts and the ultimate expression of political will, I’m not going to get into the specifics of my politics.”

    Man, you’re cagey.
    And I don’t think that omission of politics in wargames is an oddity, it’s a defect.
    It’s not appropriate for all games, obviously – if you are playing a tactical North Africa game, the balance of power in the Mediterranean has nothing to do with the penetrative powers of a 2-pounder gun.
    But much above this level, it’s frankly missing the point.
    I have written at length about this elsewhere, and it’s a central point of many of my game designs.

    Brian Train

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