Mary Russell

Victory Conditions are a fine art in historical games. For the side that won the conflict, you generally want conditions that mirror the historical result. For the side that was defeated, you'll either need to come up with a reasonable hypothetical of what victory would have looked like, or, in cases that are really lopsided, you'll need to resort to "lose the battle, but win in game terms" conditions - the side still loses, but loses in a less humiliating and decisive fashion, which is enough to give the disadvantaged player a fair shot at winning the game. 

What happens, however, when neither side "loses" during the conflict or period being simulated? How does a side "win" when neither side wins? That was the question I grappled with when I started putting together This Guilty Land. That game takes as its subject the political struggle over slavery in the decades leading up to the American Civil War, with one side, Justice, pursuing the abolition of slavery, and the other, Oppression, agitating for its preservation and even expansion.

The game doesn't simulate the war itself. The game also assumes that the war would have been resolved in roughly the same way it was historically, with a Union military victory and the emancipation of African-Americans. If Justice wins the game, the war begins, the South loses, and the slaves are freed. If Oppression wins the game, the war begins, the South loses, and the slaves are freed. In this sense, the players have no impact on the end result of the conflict, and in a way, that's the point. The Civil War was not the result of some failure to compromise, something that could or should have been avoided, as some have proposed. Compromise on that subject was and is abhorrent: neither side would or could ever have convinced the other. It is difficult to condemn "extremism" and intransigence when one side was clearly right and the other wrong. This is a conflict that never could have been resolved legislatively or through debate. The thesis of the game, then, is that the Civil War was not only inevitable but necessary, and that the question of American slavery could only be resolved by warfare. 

So the first question this raises is, how does one come up with victory conditions when, during the period being simulated, neither side had achieved their aims? Partially this was resolved by assigning Victory Points to various accomplishments: the player with the most VP at the end of the game wins. Cumulative VP are scored every turn for shifting Laws onto one's side, and both players can "buy" VP by expending excess Political Will. Forming political parties will score VP, but this will radicalize some of your supporters while driving the others toward squishy, insidious centrism. 

But because of certain systemic factors - factors that are crucial to understanding the period and the game - Oppression was coming up with far more VP than Justice. Briefly I toyed with Justice having a non-VP victory condition, but that lacked tension, and saw Justice dedicate their efforts solely to that Victory Condition, ignoring what Oppression was doing. In a game about deadlock, having both players treating it like a "multiplayer solitaire" eurogame is not acceptable. So instead, I turned Justice's non-VP-scoring Victory Condition into something that scored game end VP - 1 VP per Support. Unless they really steamroller over Oppression in that regard, they'll need to score some VP in other ways, and deny Oppression VP opportunities, if they want to come out on top. As a result, so far in testing the game is very close when the players are close, but can be a blow-out when one player is clearly dominating the proceedings. If you've read some of these articles before, then you know that's pretty much where I want it, balance-wise. 

The second question raised by this situation is, why would you simulate this at all? Why simulate a conflict - the legislative battle over slavery - that can, by my own metric, never have a winner? I think the answer is actually embedded in the question. I think it's important to understand why the issue could not, and could never, have been resolved peacefully or through the "normal" channels of civil debate and legislation. In fact, those "normal" channels only served to entrench and perpetuate the rot at the center of our republic.


  • Stephen, not to get too far into the weeds here, but Abraham Lincoln was a centrist candidate who distanced himself from “radical” abolitionists. Abolitionists had no love for moderate Republicans like Lincoln who were anti-slavery but were also careful to say that they wouldn’t take any measures to end it. Lincoln’s squishy centrism is what made him electable (while a relative firebrand like Seward could not secure the party’s nomination). This doesn’t take away from what Lincoln accomplished, or his resolve during the war – but at the time, he was not the radical the Southern fire-eaters were so desperate to paint him as.

    What I am “seriously” saying is that slavery could never have been solved legislatively – it would always come to war. That war could have happened earlier – the Nullification Crisis and the Nashville Conventions certainly could have forced the issue – or it could have happened later. It could have been sparked by an election, or not. But abolitionists would never allow slavery to endure, and slaveholders would never give it up willingly. Whatever form that hypothetical civil war would have taken, I do believe that it would still have put North against South. A Southern victory would depend largely on foreign aid, and just as was the case historically, such aid was not forthcoming, largely because the cornerstone of the Confederacy was slavery.

    Tom Russell

  • It bothers me, for reasons I’m not quite sure of, that the hypothesis is that the narrative of the game cannot alter the historical outcomes leading up to the ACW (namely, that the ACW happens). Maybe I worry that it devalues the achievement of ending legalized slavery in the US, because if it was a forgone conclusion? I do get your point about how players playing Oppression might not enjoy their role as much in a game where, I assume, the tragedy of slavery is not glossed over as much as in, say, Endeavor. I guess it just strikes me as too close to a teleological view of history.


  • Tom, interesting article. Are you saying that if Abraham Lincoln had NOT been elected, the American Civil War would have still turned out the same way? Are you seriously saying that if a more centrist President had been elected that the war could have ended in a Peace treaty? (Maybe my questions are outside the realm of the game itself…)

    Stephen Oliver

  • Re: why we think customers would want to play this game when the outcome is irrelevant – the joy is in the journey, as they say – it’s a topic worth exploring and experiencing, and I think the game play itself is fun and compelling. It’s very much a game and not pedagogical, though like all wargames and history games, it does have “educational” value. But we already recognize that given the subject matter, it has a more limited audience – I think the bigger obstacle for a lot of people is going to be playing the side that’s advocating slavery. The folks who are going to be interested enough in the game’s subject matter and situation likely won’t be put off by the fact that their actions won’t decide the final issue.

    Tom Russell

  • You say, “… it’s important to understand why the issue could not, and could never, have been resolved …” It is important to understand this part of our history, but that begs the question of why one would make a commercial game about it. This sounds more like a classroom exercise than a wargame (or Euro). It’s literally your business, but why do you think your customers want to play a game when the outcome is irrelevant?

    As an aside, I’ve never been fond of games where you win by losing less badly than the historical outcome. I understand the reason for them from a competitive point of view, but I don’t feel like I’ve won (or lost), even if the victory conditions say I have, when the military outcome is so clear.

    Dav Vandenbroucke

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