I had the pleasure over Memorial Day weekend of attending Heavy Con in Denver, where I dedicated quite a bit of time to running playtests of This Guilty Land for twelve persons who had never played the game before. I was more than a little nervous going in. While the dozens of playtests before Heavy Con had all seemed to confirm that I knew what I was doing, it's always a little nerve-wracking pushing something in front of brand new people, particularly when that something is as aggressively odd as my open-hand political CDG.
In particular, the way that cards come out of the deck is more-or-less made to create statistically aberrant draws. To briefly recap for those who aren't familiar, each player has a thing called Organizational Capacity, a number which touches and influences pretty much every part of the game. At the beginning of each turn, if one or both players have fewer cards than their Org Capacity, then cards are drawn from the deck one at a time, blue cards going to Justice and red cards to Oppression, until both sides have at least as many cards as their Org Capacity. This can result in one side drawing more cards than their Org Capacity, sometimes a lot more. You just need one blue but you draw red-red-red-red-red first; it's what I like to call the "who shuffled this?" phenomena. At the beginning of the game, the draw is until each player has at least four cards. Statistically the most likely result is a four-four or four-five split, but you can also have a six-four split, an eight-four, a ten-four, a sixteen-four. The chances of that last one happening is about one in five thousand, and the disadvantaged player gets some victory points in compensation, but it's still possible.
The balance of a match gets more fragile the wider the gulf in the initial draws, and so leading up to Heavy Con I had nightmares about game after game where the initial draw was thirty-to-four. "I don't understand how this is possible," said Dream Tom. "There aren't that many blue cards in the deck!"
"This is hopelessly broken," said all the Dream Playtesters.
"No! I've been exposed as a fraud!" And then, like a vampire, I evaporate in a puff of smoke.
But the initial draws for the Heavy Con tests weren't too aberrant - I don't think we ever got any four-fours, but we got a few four-fives and four-sixes, and only one four-eight - and the games for the most part went as expected. When both players did well, the scores were close, and when one of the players did better than the other, there was a respectable gap of say nine or ten points. There was one game where the story was quite different, but we'll circle back to that in a hop and a skip.
The games at Heavy Con took much longer than our internal testing. Around the house, we can knock out a match in twenty or thirty minutes. It's not uncommon to run through the game eight or ten times in a single day. At Heavy Con, games averaged sixty to ninety minutes including the teach. Part of that was that they were all new players - first games are going to go longer - and part of it is that the game's usability was not as high as it should have been. I was constantly being asked for reminders as to how much PW one's opponent got for a given action - all players felt that this was something that should have been on the cards all along.
Cole Wehrle, who will be doing the art for the game, had particular insights into that, and said something that I found very flattering regarding how the game delivered on its theme. To paraphrase, he felt that Optimates et Populares was difficult to teach to someone who wasn't well-versed in the social and political life of the Roman Republic. If you had that background, everything made sense, but if you didn't, the mechanisms didn't feel immediately thematic. But with This Guilty Land, he felt that the thematic implications of the mechanisms were much more readily apparent, and that you could introduce the game to someone who didn't have much knowledge of the period without much trouble. The playtests seem to bear that out; many of the players didn't know much at all about the period, but seemed to grasp the mechanisms and what they represented thematically very readily. So, score one for me there.
One of the biggest concerns I had, beyond "did everything make sense" and "is this balanced", was concerning how comfortable (or uncomfortable) players would be playing Oppression, the side of the game that is dedicated to the preservation and spread of slavery. We've got surprisingly little push-back on the game since it was announced, but there were a few folks who were convinced that they'd never be able to get such a game on the table, because no one would want to play Oppression. But none of the playtesters felt especially uncomfortable with it. From playtester feedback, this seemed to be because the game addressed the subject matter soberly rather than sensationally, with the right amount of distance that they didn't feel morally compromised.
FIFTY-ONE TO SEVENTEEN
A different kind of blowout.
So, all-in-all, a very successful and ego-boosting round of testing. Except, that is, for one match. Like I said earlier, the scores were generally pretty close, and even lopsided victories were within nine or ten points. But this one was a bloodbath: fifty-one to seventeen. I didn't even know that someone could score over fifty.
So, what the heck happened? That's the question I kept asking myself as I waited for my flight back to Detroit. Justice, which had the high score, had utterly dominated the game almost from the beginning. Usually Oppression scores a lot of points during the game, for Laws, while Justice scores most of their points at the end of the game, for Support. At the start of any match, Oppression is already scoring 1 VP each turn, and they have control of the House, which you need in order to take a Law action. Justice controls the Senate but does so through the Blue Compromise faction, which is unreliable; by discarding a Public Opinion card from their Reserve, Oppression can win over those Compromise votes and pass the Laws they need. So, unless and until they get hold of the Senate, and if and until they keep the majority in the House, Oppression needs to get and then discard Public Opinion cards to pass any Law cards that come into their side of the Events Display.
But Oppression didn't get any Public Opinion cards in the initial draw, or on turn 2, and by the time they did in turn 3, Justice had already taken the House. Justice does so by flipping Compromise seats from red to blue. This is an action that Oppression can block… if they have at least one Support in the targeted Region (which they did) and if they have a Public Opinion card in Reserve. Which they didn't, until Turn 3.
Justice, with control of both the House and the Senate, started passing one Law after another. Justice was, in effect, scoring the points that Oppression usually scored in the game. Now, Oppression gets to block one Law each turn during the Tabling Phase. If Justice only has one Law card, for example "Tariffs", in their Event Display, then Oppression can Table "Tariffs", and Justice can't pass a Law that turn. Of course, if Justice has two Law cards in the Display, then Oppression can Table one of them but not the other (play of a certain special event notwithstanding). In that case, it becomes important which Law Oppression chooses to Table. In Turn 3, for example, the first turn where Justice could pass a Law, Justice had two Law cards, Federalism and Fugitive Slave Acts. If Fugitive Slave Acts passed in blue's direction (being a relaxing of those laws), it would flip Blue Compromise markers to their Justice side, while Federalism would flip Oppression to their Red Compromise side (which Oppression doesn't want). Oppression chose to Table Fugitive Slave Acts, which allowed Justice to pass Federalism. One Oppression marker in each Region flipped to Red Compromise, leaving them with no Support in several Regions. Hold onto this bit, it will be important like three paragraphs from now.
From the first draw, and seemingly every turn after, Oppression kept drawing lousy cards. They never took back the House and never passed any Laws. Once they got their Public Opinion cards, they were no longer in a position that could block Justice from flipping markers to their side, because they had no Support remaining in the Regions that Justice was targeting. They were always just out of step, always struggling to draw cards, and those cards were of limited use. There existed the possibility, then, that that player was simply hosed by the deck itself.
And that bugged me. Sure, in any game with a random draw, you're going to get bad hands, and sure, there will be games where your hands are always bad. Mary has a special ability when playing Scrabble in that she almost always draws seven garbled, useless vowels, every single time. Now, every single time, she beats me by like two or three hundred points, despite the fact that I'm getting all the good letters. That's because Mary is a better player than I am, and Scrabble is, in its way, a game of skill. I'd like to think that the same could be said of This Guilty Land. And in every playtest up until that point, I thought that was true. But then there was this match, with that thirty-plus point spread, staring me in the face. Was it just an anomaly? Was that kind of anomaly acceptable if it meant that dozens and dozens of other matches would be interesting and competitive? Or, to put it another way, if the rules meant that the game was decided on skill 95% of the time, but it was decided by dumb luck the other 5%, could it still be called a game of skill?
So, like I said, I spent a lot of time turning this over in my head in the airport, and also on the flight back to Detroit (during those rare lulls in the, uh, interesting conversation I had with the guy sitting next to me), and wondering if my game was, if you'll pardon the turn of phrase, built as a house of cards. But the next day, as I went over the notes for the game, I looked again at that Tabling Phase in Turn 3, the one where Oppression had a choice between Fugitive Slave Act and Federalism, and they went with Federalism. If you'll recall, passing Fugitive Slave Act would have increased Justice's presence in each Region, while passing Federalism would have decreased Oppression's. In fact, it removed Oppression's Support in three of the five Regions entirely, which meant that Oppression no longer had the option to block Justice's actions in those Regions.
If Oppression had blocked Federalism - if they had maintained their Support in those Regions, however tenuously, they could have used Public Opinion cards to block, or at least slow down, Justice's growth. They could, in fact, have used the cards that they were drawing to take back the House: those hands would no longer be lousy. Justice not only wouldn't have been scoring a point for Federalism every turn, but they would have had less Support at the end of the game, which would have greatly reduced their end game scoring.
That Tabling Phase in Turn 3 was a huge mistake, a hinge-point on which the entire match turned. One bad move had catastrophic, irreversible effects that defined the rest of the match. If you've read even a few of these blog-things, you know that kind of thing is pretty much my whole thing, and thus exactly the sort of game that I want This Guilty Land to be. In that sense, that match wasn't an outlier at all.
But. Something still nagged at me. Yes, if Oppression had Tabled Federalism instead, they would have been in a much more competitive position, their cards would have been much more useful, taking back the House and passing Laws would be possible, and Justice would have scored fewer points. The spread would be narrowed considerably. But could Oppression have actually won the thing? Or, was their position going into Turn 3 - a position they were stuck with given the cards they had available - so weak as to render a win impossible (a similarly grave error made by Justice notwithstanding)? I didn't have an answer, and that concerned me.
Assyrian archers. Close enough.
Now, it being a card-driven game, and it being a particularly and peculiarly swingy sort of card-driven game, both players have to deal with the vagaries of the shuffle. Working with what you have and making the best of it is what cards are for, after all. But the deck is asymmetrical. Justice has 26 of the game's 50 cards, and Oppression the other 24. Those cards for each fall into five categories:
Thus, generally, Oppression has a systemic advantage when it comes to Law Cards and Special Events, and is less likely to get a Violence Card (which negatively effects one's Support in each Region). Justice has a clear advantage with Public Opinion - which is historically accurate, given that the argument "slavery is bad" is easier to make than its opposite - but is slightly more likely to incur Violence. While one side controls the House, the other's Law cards are dead weight, and so at the beginning of the game, until and unless Justice takes the House via repeated and dogged Public Opinion actions, the last thing they want to see are the Law Cards that take up 30% of their half of the deck.
But, like I said, Justice starts with the Senate, which means that Oppression needs Public Opinion cards to discard in order to pass Laws through that second legislative body. Because of this, and because Oppression is less likely to draw Public Opinion cards than Justice, Oppression is hurt more by a bad initial draw than Justice is. Public Opinion cards are also used to block marker play in a Region, and so once they get one of the cards in their Reserve, Oppression needs to choose whether to keep the card there (at least temporarily) for that purpose, or if they will discard it to pass a Law. Justice is more likely to keep the card there - there's no reason to Discard it - which helps build a marker play engine.
Therefore, if one of the two sides gets Public Opinion cards before the other, the disadvantaged side in both cases are not equally disadvantaged. Justice getting Public Opinion cards and Oppression getting none is potentially ruinous for Oppression, while Justice is more likely to muscle through when the opposite is true, for however many turns it takes for them to draw a Public Opinion card, which is statistically more likely for them than it is for Oppression.
SPEEDING UP OPPRESSION, SLOWING DOWN JUSTICE
Probably a normal designer designing a normal CDG would shift the odds slightly - give Justice 8 cards instead of 9, and Oppression 7 instead of 6 - but not only am I not a normal designer designing a normal game, but that also fails to address the underlying issue: if Justice gets Public Opinion cards before Oppression does, they can flip the house in two to three turns, possibly before Oppression can pass any Laws. What Oppression needed was some guarantee that they would have the resources they needed to either block marker play or pass a Law through the Senate.
What Oppression needed, then, was to start with a card in Reserve. In the version of the game that was played at Heavy Con, Justice actually started with just such a card - It Bends Towards Justice - and it was a key component of their ability to build a marker-play engine in the early going. That card was foundational, both in terms of the mechanics and in terms of theme, representing the moral imperative that gave abolitionists an unquestionable advantage in the domain of public opinion. Oppression likewise had a foundational card, A Positive Good, and so I thought, well, that'll do. As a 3 value PW card, it can block most marker-play, at least once. That slowed down Justice a bit in the first few post-Heavy Con playtests.
But then Justice started to direct its marker-play in those Regions in the North where Oppression didn't start with any Support - Regions where Justice couldn't be blocked. I tried a number of possible tweaks - for example, I gave Oppression one Support marker at start in those Regions - before deciding that perhaps the extra granularity that came with "to block, you must have a Public Opinion card in Reserve and you must have at least one Support in the Region" wasn't really worth the hassle. If I jettisoned that second clause entirely, I reasoned, both players could block marker-play much more frequently, giving the players more choices about how and when to use their cards.
The twenty-five playtests that following weekend confirmed the wisdom of that decision. (Did I mention that a game that plays in twenty minutes lends itself to rapid testing?) In fact, I've now gone one further and removed Justice's starting Reserve card, placing it back into the deck. This means that Justice is less likely to have that engine revving quite so soon, and is more likely to start it with a more expensive card than the cheap It Bends Towards Justice. All that slows Justice down. Chances are as the game goes on, they'll pick up speed and a sort of irresistible momentum - that's one of the things the game is trying to simulate, how fringe movements become mainstream - but Oppression has more time to ensconce themselves in the early game, and more opportunities to thwart progress.These changes are relatively small in the grand scheme of things, but significant. That 51-17 game wouldn't just have been closer, it wouldn't just have been winnable by Oppression - it just plain wouldn't have happened, because from Turn 1, the decision space would have been radically different, even with the same exact card draws.