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VARIABLE VP IN NICAEA (by Tom Russell)

Mary Russell

My big end of year game for 2021 (assuming it comes together) is Nicaea, about the First Council of the same. The short version is that it’s a sort of stock-holding game, only instead of investing in companies you’re arguing for one side or the other of a theological position. For example, some players might stake the claim that Christ is homoousion (of the same substance as the Father) and others that Christ is homoiousian (of a similar, but not identical, substance). Players “buy” “shares” of that position, and when the issue is settled, the side with the majority of shares in player hands is deemed the orthodox position, and the other side, heterodox. That, in essence, is the thrust of the argument: what is “true” and what is heresy is determined by peer pressure and power politics – by human beings - rather than the divine.

Prior to the issue being settled, both sides gain Influence within the church based on the strength of their arguments (investments) at regular intervals – to continue the stock metaphor, they’re paid dividends. But when the issue is settled, only orthodox viewpoints score victory points. The player with the most victory points – essentially, the player who owns the most shares in the most orthodox positions – wins. Well, maybe. Because if the player with the least victory points has garnered the most influence, they provoke a schism within the church and win the game.

Now, while I will joke that Nicaea is a sort of train game without trains, and that this should absolve me of the requirement to do a new train game for 2021 (Mary is rather adamant that this is not the case), this alternate victory condition, and its mandated separation of money (Influence) from victory points, creates a problem. In every train game I’ve designed, money and VP are one and the same. Spending money is spending VP in the hopes of gaining more VP, either because you expect a higher return on your investment, or because you expect it to hurt the positions of other players. And while it’s often possible to math out every dollar, in practice it’s not plausible; there’s enough granularity that the ultimate outcome of the game remains a little “fuzzy”. You must balance the cost of the stock now versus its anticipated income (not sure how much?) over the remaining rounds (not sure how many?) and what its final value might be in your portfolio (who the heck knows?), not only for your own positions but to all other positions relative to yours.

But in a game with relatively few scoring opportunities – there’s only seven major issues to be decided over the course of Nicaea, plus a handful of cheerful minor points of canon law like “knock it off with the self-castration already please” – it’s a lot easier to math it out, and since VP isn’t “spent” as it is in a choo-choo game, it’s much harder to claw your way from the back of the pack to the front. This would incentivize more players – maybe all the players except the one in the lead! - to actively chase after a schism. That doesn’t gel with the argument or with the history. The idea is that the players are trying to be on the winning side, and have their views (which were sincerely and passionately felt) be accepted by the wider church; they’re only going to take their ball and go home if they’re left entirely out in the cold and if they still have enough support to make open defiance feasible.

A fuzzier game state – in which players have a more general idea of who’s winning and who’s behind – incentivizes historical behavior. So, how to fuzzify it? I was turning this over in my head while tidying up our shelf of Hollandspiele titles, and in the process my fingers brushed against our copy of An Infamous Traffic, an obscure early game from our catalogue that no one has heard of.  In that game, the VP prizes for a round are hidden until the end of it. These prizes have a variable value ranging from three VP (which is a lot of VP) to negative one. Now, once revealed and awarded, they weren’t hidden any longer, so this didn’t create fuzziness about the game’s outcome so much as a moment-to-moment uncertainty.

But I could very easily use variable, hidden VPs to create the kind of fuzziness my game needed. When an issue is settled, each “share” would yield its owner a VP token, the value of which would be known only to that player. So, you would know how many tokens another player had, which would give you a general idea of how well you were doing compared to everyone else, without it being something you might math out. That would make provoking a schism riskier, as you wouldn’t know if you had the least number of points – a prerequisite for that victory condition.

One of the key complaints about Traffic’s prize system is how volatile that range was. Not only was there a four point spread across five values, but those values relative to one another increased dramatically. A summer estate was worth twice as much as a good marriage, and a peerage thrice as much. There is also a sparsity of prizes available: two each worth three or two points, three each worth one or zero, and two worth negative one. Someone netting three points versus someone netting one is huge , and there might not be a chance for the shorted player to recover. To be clear, I don’t see this as a problem, as it’s perfectly in keeping with the game’s model and decision space.

But for my purposes, for Nicaea, I knew I’d need a larger pool of VP chits with a range of values that is more tightly bounded. I wanted fuzziness, not the feeling that a player’s winning score was due to dumb luck. Three values would suffice. The question then became, what should those three values be? 1, 2, 3 was right out. 2, 3, 4 was better but still too dramatic. If two players each draw a single chit, and one gets the 2 and one the 4, the latter has double the score of the first for the same accomplishment. If one player draws two 2 chits, and one player one 4, they have the same score despite one player having invested twice as much.

3, 4, 5 seems more equitable. 5 is only ~1.67 times 3, and a player who pulls two chits will be guaranteed to get at least 1 more VP than a player who draws only one. 4, 5, 6 might also work; 6 is one-and-a-half times greater than 4, and a two-share player will score at least 2 VP more than a doctrinal dispute dilettante. I’m not sure yet which of these two I’m going to go with – this is why we playtest, after all. And this hidden information will be supplemented by open, fixed VP scoring for cementing minor points of canon law – say, one or two points if I go with the three-to-five range, or two or three if I go with the four-to-six.

6 comments

  • I’ve heard of Credo but haven’t played it. I did peruse the rules and I would say the two games are quite different.

    Tom Russell

  • How similar is this to Chaosium’s ‘Credo’? I know there’s a new edition of that game coming out soon.

    Michael Hagen

  • I appreciate the feedback, Bob, though honestly I’m not particularly concerned with making it palatable, and I think the folks who would be put off by the irreverent tone would also be put off by the game’s argument. In that sense, it should give them the opportunity to self-select out. (At any rate, as a devout Christian, I don’t have a problem with a little razing, but to each their own.) Thanks again for your thoughts.

    Tom Russell

  • The designer has released a small description of the game, and a few cards on social media, and the modern language used, in my opinion could be problematic from a thematic standpoint, and from those who may be offended based on their religious convictions. It seems like it’s going to be a very interesting game to play, but I may consider a little more gravitas in the language used in the game.

    Bob

  • This one definitely sounds interesting! I have two thoughts here.

    I blogged this summer about arguments in games, not in the “what is the game arguing?” sense but in the “how can a game simulate an argument?” sense; Westphalia, and my own abortive Thirty Years War game, were examples of this: how does a game capture the idea of ministers doing what they do, arguing over stuff?

    The tricky bit, as I see it, is that a game risks taking a reductionist view of arguments: that all that matters is /the arguing/, and the subject is just a big McGuffin whose content barely matters. But more than that, it implies that it doesn’t actually matter which side had the stronger argument, it simply matters which side asserted their position more forcefully. Doubtless history provides plenty of examples of this exact thing happening in this exact way. But I don’t know if Nicaea is such a case; I think the Orthodox faction wins because they have a better argument than Arius, not because they strong-armed those on the fence.

    A book that might be of interest, though it’s not about Nicaea specifically, is “Constantine’s Bible”, by David Dungan. It’s more about the selection of the NT “canon”, but his position is that the selection of the books wasn’t so much a consequence of a strong faction imposing their will on weaker factions, but on one faction having better arguments: we can trace our texts back to the original eyewitnesses through a chain of bishops going all the way back; you guys can’t do that for your texts, therefore, their authenticity is not legitimate.

    My only other comment is that it would seem to be a bit of a clang to treat all issues at Nicaea as having equal weight. It was convened because of the Arian controversy, and it’s remembered primarily for its engagement with that question. It feels to me like that issue should loom the largest.

    Looking forward to hearing more about this!

    Jeff


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