Mary Russell

This Guilty Land was a difficult and challenging project for a wide variety of reasons. Perhaps the most obvious is that I had to immerse myself in a subject that was depressing and enraging; it often left me exhausted. I acutely felt an overwhelming onus to treat that subject with sensitivity, to get it right; there were so many ways to get it wrong or handle it badly. Beyond that, there was an additional responsibility to clearly and effectively communicate what the game was and what it was not, and how I was handling such a fraught subject. We had to control the narrative during development, up to and through the game's release, because if we didn't, someone else would, and we had no desire to be on the wrong side of that.

Setting all that aside - and certainly, that's a whole lot to be setting aside and a major reason why I'm not exactly champing at the bit any time soon to do another ambitious game on a contentious and difficult subject - there's also the fact that the game was unusual mechanically, with a greater number of moving parts than is typical of my work. As you can imagine this created a whole host of design challenges, but it also created a challenge in presenting all those moving parts to players in a way that they could grasp and hold onto.

I was helped in this endeavor by two things: first, while most people coming to the game probably wouldn't know who William Lloyd Garrison was, they would have some broad if vague knowledge of the period, and second, that the political processes and partisan discourse of antebellum America aren't wildly different from standard operating procedure today both in America and abroad. Because of this, the mechanisms are more likely to feel "thematic", and because they feel thematic, they're more likely to be remembered and understood.

I remember getting some feedback after a playtest from Cole Wehrle, in which Cole compared the game to its spiritual predecessor, Optimates et Populares. He said that if you're not well-versed in the politics and governmental structure of the late Roman Republic - which most people aren't! - it feels like all the mechanisms are arbitrary and disjointed. Whereas with This Guilty Land, because most people do have some frame of reference, everything feels much more intuitive. Cole felt that it would do a lot of the heavy lifting, but that I still needed to do more to meet the gamers halfway.

It was after that conversation that I started thinking about using iconography on the cards to describe the actions, and the resultant PW gain for your opponent. That last bit was something that always confused playtesters, since the PW gain would be different for each action. Putting all this on the cards would make the function of each moving part much more readily apparent, at least in isolation. That still left the challenge of bringing it all together, and that's when I took on the task of including a full sample game in the playbook. If you talk to designers at all, they will tell you that doing a sample turn - let alone a full flipping sample game - is one of the hardest parts. It's incredibly easy to make a mistake, for one thing. For another, you want the sample (regardless of size) to show off all the game's various mechanics and facets to some degree or another, and in games with any kind of variety in the decision tree, it can feel like you're trying to shoehorn something in. Writing rules is a breeze, historical background material is a pleasant diversion, but sample games are an agony.

But, in this case, a necessary one. A number of folks have learned the game by first going through the sample game turn by turn, action by action, and this usually clears up most of the questions they have about what does what, if not necessarily why they should make this choice over that one, or how to play the game well.

So, why am I talking about this eight or nine months later? Because I find myself in a similar, if much trickier, situation. My game Westphalia, on a mechanical level, has fewer moving parts than This Guilty Land. But since that game is about diplomatic and military relationships between great powers in the waning days of the Thirty Years War, a subject that is fairly niche and specialist, those mechanisms are less likely to feel intuitive. The game is also somewhat asymmetric: while all players basically have the same rules and are playing the same game, they have very different advantages, disadvantages, and winning conditions, and grasping not only what you need, but what you can get from whom, is crucial to playing the game well.

On top of all this of course is the fact that it's a game for six and only six. That limits its ability to hit the table. Now, the thing plays in about two hours, so it's not as big of an ask as we need six players for this nerdy game that will take all day. But it's still an ask, and I don't want someone to spend one weekend after the next trying to coordinate six schedules, and then when it finally happens, everyone is bumbling around the barren war-torn remains of the Holy Roman Empire scratching their heads.

The major development work for Westphalia in the last few months hasn't been about making any mechanical changes to the game; it's about improving the user interface and jump-starting cognition. I've been attacking this problem via a number of different fronts.

First, and perhaps most unusually, the rulebook is divided into two sections: Context and Laws of Play. As you might imagine, Laws of Play is a no-frills straightforward "do this then this, must and may and must not" explanation of the rules. The Context section which precedes it is about giving the reader a somewhat idiosyncratic and necessarily abbreviated crash course in the political, diplomatic, and military situations that the game represents. This keeps the Laws uncluttered and easy to reference, while enabling the reader to answer the "Wait, why does X?" questions that might come up during play. If the person who bought the game and is presumably going to teach it has read that section, they're going to be better able to connect those dots for themselves and their fellow players.

Secondly, I am planning on including a "teaching script" in the rulebook. This will basically be verbatim how I teach the game. This isn't a "short version" of the rules - the rules themselves are the shortest version of the rules - but an overview of the mechanics, the factions, and their relationships, frontloading the most important information without overwhelming people by blabbing at them for half an hour. The danger here of course is that everyone learns differently and teaches differently; there's bound to be people who feel the script doesn't cover enough and others who feel it gets too detailed. I will naturally be encouraging people to adapt it as they see fit for their group and their preferences.

But more than trying to get players to hold the game together in their head, there's the more pressing problem of getting them into it. Often with new groups I see players spending the first round hesitant to make trades, unsure of what they should be doing. The problem is that you don't have that many rounds and you really need to make all of them count. Toward the end of their first game, all players are convinced that there's no way they can satisfy their victory conditions; it's not until the game moves to its final debt resolutions that the light bulb goes off and they see what they've accomplished, and, oh, turns out I did it after all.

Both of these are problems that go away the second time the players sit down to the game, and, hey, normally I'd be kinda sorta okay with that, if it wasn't a six player only game. If it was for two players, well, probably you can play it again in a few days or the following week, and now you have that experience and can play more competently. But at six, your second whack at it might be a few weeks or months later, and there's a good chance that it won't be the exact same five faces staring back at you. I need to give all those players a little nudge in the right direction so they can start and end the game on better footing.

This crystallized for me after playing Tom Lehmann's Time Agent in Dallas at this year's Trains and Chit. That's a game that, at least functionally, is for only six players, with each player's factions having, you guessed it, different advantages, disadvantages, and goals. The faction cards for Time Agent each identify a couple of key events that you want to alter, and even suggest a strategy or two that might be worth pursuing. I don't go quite that far, but I do give a quick and dirty summary of that player's position, what they want, and how they can get it.

I also spend a few words talking about the feel of the faction, because that's also important; some are going to be a better fit for Bob than for Janice and vice-versa. One of the cool things about Westphalia that I like is that after you've dealt out the factions, players can trade them before the game starts, even sweetening the deal by exchanging starting commodities. This was great in theory, but in the first several playtests no one ever wanted to trade, with the prevailing feeling being, well, we haven't played it before, so we don't know what they're like. I might tell them what they're like, but it was hard to hold six different factions in their head simultaneously. Once I put that info on cards, however, this pre-game faction-swapping started happening more frequently. Having that card in front of you allows you to focus on that single piece of information in isolation, better enabling you to decide, "oh, yeah, this sounds up my alley" or "ooh, this one might not be my jam, maybe someone wants to trade".

It's easy - sometimes seductively so - to think of games as their mechanical parts, the sum of their rules and systems, as a pure abstract thing that exists separately from the components that bind it to our physical world. But the usability of these components, the ways that they underline or subvert meaning, and the ways they communicate or fail to - these are crucial parts of the experience that shouldn't be overlooked.


  • Very interesting read! The idea of having multiple “layers” of game description has some similarities to how software should (ideally) be documented. Tutorials to give a “quick start” for the common things you want to do; detailed guides – often for developers – on specific aspects; and then the “API” which is the full technical detail. Jacob Kaplan-Moss describes this very well indeed – https://jacobian.org/2009/nov/10/what-to-write/

    At the end of the day, both games and software are things that “function” and the easier they are to learn to make work, the more chance someone will keep playing/using them!


  • ui design is one of the most important and least appreciated dimensions of cardboard dev. it’s like audio mixing: no one notices its even happening, until it goes screechingly wrong. (it’s also coincidentally my favorite bit to work on.)

    Erin Lee Escobedo

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