Weeks and months after I've finished development on a game, we get the proof from our printer and I put it on the table again. It's often the first time I've played it since the end of development. This is important for proofing purposes. You often hear about folks who are too close to a thing, too familiar with it, and they're unable to see it clearly. This little bit of distance helps us to see the thing with fresh eyes and to catch mistakes before we authorize production.
But more than that, the time away from the game allows me the opportunity to rediscover it, and to fall in love with it again. This might be even more important than checking everything for accuracy. Checking the game for errors is vital to ensure the quality of the product and our reputation as a publisher, but this rekindling of affection for a game is vital to my process as a designer. This is particularly true for a series like Table Battles.
At this point I've designed twenty-five of the darn things. Chances are over the course of the next year I'll be designing twenty-five more. I'm not complaining: I have the best job in the world. But in order to do the work well, I need to keep it fresh and interesting, I need to keep pushing at the boundaries of it, and I need to continually rediscover the essence of the system and approach it anew.
I had the opportunity to do that recently when we got the proof copy for the second expansion, Age of Alexander. Over the course of a couple days, Mary and I ran through all the cards to check them for errors (there were a few, now corrected). And one afternoon, my pal Max came over so we could run through each of the scenarios a couple of times.
Max controlled Alexander's forces every time. This gave him better cards with more flexibility, but also the onus to use those advantages to win lopsided victories with minimal losses. Playing the Alexander side requires careful, thoughtful play, and Max is generally a careful, thoughtful player. The opposing side in each scenario generally has less to work with, but is more forgiving. That worked for me since I tend to play things more fast and loose, and would need the wiggle room.
The first scenario in the set is Chaeronea, and the first time around, Max beat me soundly and methodically. Max has often grumbled that the few times he shows up in one of my blogposts or BGG session reports that he's always losing, despite the fact that he almost always wins, so I feel it's important that I emphasize how thoroughly and majestically he won the first match. With that out of the way, now I can tell you about the second match of Chaeronea.
It began with the usual back-and-forth dance of actions-and-reactions that in some ways is the key feature of Table Battles, the thing that delights its adherents and frustrates its opponents, looping again and again as we sought some way to break the deadlock, or to maintain it, if only temporarily, in our own favor. And this continued, turn after turn, until it was my go and, somewhat uncharacteristically, I didn't go. Instead, I just stopped and stared at my cards, and his cards, and my dice, and his dice. I stared for what must've been an extraordinarily long time.
"Mary," said Max, "I think Tom's broken."
"I'm just a little stuck," I said. Mary asked me to explain.
"I'm trying to decide if I should attack with my Thebans, who have two dice, or my Athenian Left, which has one. Right now, he can't block my Thebans," I tapped Max's diceless Alexander card, which needed a pair to Screen, "so that would do two hits against his Left Phalanx. The Left Phalanx has one die and could, on his next go, attack my Thebans, and at that point we each have a stick left. So on a future turn, we're likely to eliminate each other. In which case there's no exchange of morale cubes. And, you know, I want to take his one morale cube so I can win the thing. I'd much rather have three dice on the card when I attack."
"Because then you would do three hits," said Mary, "and then he can't hit you back with his one die without Eliminating himself and losing the game. You might not be able to Eliminate that one, but you've basically neutralized that card and your Thebans are safe for now."
"Right. And maybe I can get that third die on there for next turn. But he gets a turn before that, and he could attack with his Left Phalanx to trigger my Counterattack reaction."
"But then he's suffering two hits and you're only suffering one."
"Yeah, but that gives him the chance to set up Alexander to Screen. This is a very rare window here where my Thebans are actually useful. I can increase that window a little bit if I force him to react to me elsewhere. That's attacking with my Athenian Left, which he has to Screen with his Hypaspists. He doesn't get an action on his turn, and I think there's a pretty decent chance that rolling four dice I'm going to get at least one five or a six. That's my three dice.
"But he's also going to roll before I get to go again, and if he rolls at least two fives or two sixes, on four dice, Alexander gets reloaded to Screen and my three dice are wasted. Assuming I can even get that third die.
"So, I can do the sure thing now, two hits, probably setting up for an exchange I don't really want. Or I can stall right now to go after what I want, three hits, but there's a chance I'm going to let my window close. I'm not sure which one I should choose, but it's likely this is the decision that will win me the game or lose it. So. I'm stuck."
Mary stared at it a moment, then said: "Go for the two hits."
And so I did. I then had five dice to roll. Three of them were ones. Max winced: my Sacred Band card could accept all three ones in a single go. My Sacred Band card could attack his Alexander card on my next turn. His Alexander card only had three sticks. His Alexander card could Screen my Sacred Band if he had two dice, but presently the card had zero dice. Ergo: if my Sacred Band attacked his Alexander card on my next turn and it wasn't screened, I would win the game.
So it's Max's turn and he has two dice available, and the probability of rolling two fives or two sixes isn't all that great. He needs to free up some dice to tilt the odds in his favor. There's nothing that he can do to force me to react - no way he can stall. He decides that freeing up two dice is better than freeing up one, and so he zeroes in on his Hypaspists.
He can't attack with the Hypaspists. I mean, he can, but assuming he makes the roll he needs for Alex, it's going to leave his Hypaspists open to be Eliminated by my Athenian Left, which would win me the game anyway. But the Hypaspists can Retire, forcing the Athenian Left to perform Pursuit (which is one version of what happened historically). That frees up two dice without putting the Hypaspists at risk.
So the Hypaspists pretend to run away, and my gullible Athenians chase after them, and Max now has four dice to roll. He needs at least two fives or two sixes. He gets nothing that he needs. And that's it; I didn't even bother to take my last turn, my victory now a foregone conclusion.
The whole match had indeed hinged on that one decision point. The game could have gone wildly differently had I chosen option b. And even choosing the same path, even if he had managed to get the two dice he needed to block my Sacred Band, I had forced him to withdraw his Hypaspists much earlier in the game than he had anticipated, making it a little harder for him to grab back the tempo that I would probably be controlling for the next several rolls.
And all this I just found absolutely delightful, as I had many times before (even and especially when I was on the losing side). Decisions like this, moments like this, this is why I love this game; this is why I made this game.
"I can't believe I won," I said.
"You had help," said Max.
"Mary and I will share the credit."Mary waited a beat, then: "I'm not sharing."