VESTIGES (by Tom Russell)

Mary Russell

One of the core ideas of This Guilty Land is that it's a two-player game with three factions, each representing an abstract idea. One player represents Justice, their opponent Oppression, and the third, non-player faction, Compromise. Justice has blue markers and Oppression red, while the flip-side of each is used by Compromise to indicate "Compromise that leans toward Justice" and "Compromise that leans toward Oppression". One of the primary ways that Justice gets victory points is to flip blue-aligned Compromise markers to their Justice side. Both players need to contend with the fact that "their" Compromise Senators can be persuaded to vote against them when trying to pass legislation. 

Because of this, the influence of Justice, Oppression, and the two Compromises are tracked separately in the House and in the Senate. It has a mechanical purpose, and also a thematic one, literalizing the fact that Compromise isn't "really" on your side. Which faction holds which seats in the Senate is figured out at the end of each Game Turn, while power in the House shifts within a turn, necessitating a lot of little shifts: if I flip three blue Compromise markers to their Justice side, then I need to bump the blue Compromise marker down three spaces and bump the Justice marker up three. Immediately after, I might replace two red Compromise markers with blue ones, which means that red Compromise slides down two and blue slides up two. And so-on.

This is of course a little fiddly, and it sometimes obscures one's ability to pass laws in the House. Unlike the Senate, where a discard can result in Justice or Oppression winning both Compromises temporarily to their side, in the House it's a simple matter of each side adding together the support of their faction plus aligned compromise and seeing who comes out on top. During one game, one of my laws passed and I didn't realize until two turns later that I had miscounted my support, and that in actuality there'd be no way to get that law passed in the House. "Maybe," I thought, "I might have to add another marker to the House Track, tracking the total of each player faction plus their Compromise." But that would make the game even more fiddly, and make it even easier to miss something.

I stared at the track on my prototype board, and then I wondered, why am I tracking support for the House separately at all? On a purely mechanical level, the distinction only ever makes a difference at the very end of the game, when Justice scores VPs for their faction's actual, non-Compromise support. While it certainly underlines things thematically, that's not enough to justify the possibility of someone misconstruing who has control of the House, let alone the fiddle-factor. So again, I wondered, why am I doing this in the first place?

The answer is that in a very early version of the design, things were a lot more granular and a lot more complicated, including in the House. The game, and the House, got less complicated and less granular before serious testing began, but the idea of tracking it all separately remained. It's a vestigial trace of the original design, a useless if evocative remnant of a radically different organism, like the human coccyx. Immediately upon its surgical removal, the game became noticeably smoother and faster - vital features in what might be termed a racing game.

There's a reason why I test in phases, and why I will set a game aside for a few weeks or months before looking at it again, and that is that it helps me tremendously in looking at the design with fresh eyes, questioning assumptions, and finding redundant, unnecessary appendages to gleefully lop off.

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