"Running will only postpone your traitorous death." Paul's voice was low, damn near cold-blooded. All around him the others were arguing and yelling at each other in a fevered pitch as their plans for overthrow fell apart, but Paul was under control and all about business. Though his comment was not directed at me, I made a mental note to never ever cross this guy in real life.
The game was Junta.
Tapped Minister of Internal Security in the game early on he kept the role turn after turn and was taking it very seriously. He glared at the General as he said it, explaining in simple terms that he had already made a mistake, and that anyone considering following him down the same hole would regret it. As his sentence ended the arguing stopped. Paul's voice though low had pierced the noise and everyone fell quiet, stood there looking at him and wondering if he might actually carry out physical action. Kyle, El Presidente, looked to the rebellious General and said, "Dude, you're gonna wake up tonight and . . . like . . . he's gonna be standing there."
Everyone laughed in that won't-be-funny-when-the-shit-really-happens kind of way. My buddy Chris, the General leading the coup, looked to me. I held his fate in the game, the one General still remaining loyal and with troops in the capital, but before he could speak Paul, face still stone-cold serious, stuffed a million pesos in my shirt pocket and said, "He's with us." I looked at Paul, then I looked at Chris, back to Paul, then back to Chis. Paul stuffed in a second million and I said to Chris, "I'm with them." This was entertaining as hell.
That's Junta. And that's what happens when a game plays bigger than its rule set. Though detailed, Junta's rules don't attempt to manage how the players interact, how they scheme, and that is a very important part of the game. There's a reason for that: there isn't a soul alive that can write a game to make that kind of thing happen with any chance of success. The best someone can do is lay groundwork and then get the rules out of the mix, out of the way of the players. And with an intense, focused gamer such as Paul you might, might on a very good night, get the opportunity to have a gaming experience that you will be talking about with friends half a century later. God willing, Paul and I will live long enough to reminisce about this when we're sitting in the old folks home. "The night the game took on a life all its own" is about the only chance any single play of a board game has of having a long-term impact on your life.
This isn't a genre thing. This isn't about theme or play time or game style. It's about empowering players to take actions based upon each other, whether in a cooperative way or competitive, intellectual or emotional. This is "player interaction" in its most powerful form. The eggheads debate games and argue that anticipating someone's card play or blocking someone's next move constitutes interaction. But that's weak tea. The coupling isn't strong enough to bring anything new to the game. Unfortunately that's what's offered in the main stream of the market, largely because it provides a more structured (i.e., "dependably above-averarage") quality of play.
Interaction isn't just about working around another player at the table, it's about working through them -- influencing their moves so that they favor you. It's about getting a free turn because you got somebody else to take it for you. That's something you simply can't legislate in the rule book. It's rules unwritten, ingrained in the local culture and in each player's ability to sell themselves and provides about the only avenue for a truly analog level of option in games. That's when the decision trees fall away and you're left to your wits.
In fact if anything, additional rules in Junta would likely get in the way. Mads spoke of "Story in Games" (reference http://fortressat.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1280&Itemid=551) but the real magic comes when the game doesn't write the story, but merely paints a scenario and then provides a pencil and paper to you. These games are few and far between. They rely on the players to create the drama. As luck would have it this game of Junta was close, and because everyone at the table kept their head in, kept working their position as best they could, kept wheeling and dealing and trying to make other players come around to their side, the ending was intense and rewarding and memorable. There was an opportunity to paint the story, and in this particular instance we did.
Junta doesn't do that every time and one of the points I find myself arguing these days is that, well, that's a good thing. The game doesn't enforce or even encourage a particularly gripping ending -- if nobody decides to take a chance and go for a big win the game is downright dull and likely with the wrong crowd a miserable play. But that's ok, because I have my boys. I complain about my group but they understand that there's no real-life money on the table and that the pain of any one epic failure will be fleeting. The game empowers us with the opportunity for emotional gameplay and let us choose what to do with it.
That empowerment is important to me. I hereby give permission to game designers to create games that only provide stunning, jaw-dropping experiences every once in a while.
Four new friends, WBC this past weekend, different game. Al played the Russians, and came on strong two-thirds of the way through game. He landed big points in the second scoring round, but his positions were vulnerable. It became apparent to the rest of us that he was presenting inviting opportunities, and, as point leader, was someone to go after. After the tally as we began looking at Al and licking our chops, he started into a time-honored boardgaming tradition -- he began whining. We can politely refer to it as "managing the other players' opinions" since he may be listening in. Shameful behavior? Not in a game such as this. Influencing another player's actions is essential in this game and Al was stepping up to the task. My guess is that Al was having a real emotional response at the time (the game was that good), but he kept his head and methodically pointed out how others might prove a bigger threat in the near term, indicated that his lead was far from insurmountable and, more importantly than either of those, he layered on a good slice of "you may think I'm winning but I'm worried as hell right now" to bend our gut feel about where things stood. He sowed doubt; he made us worry about each other more than him. He tried to be a sympathetic figure. The gameplay "stopped" for ten or so minutes of detailed discussion and debate, each player actively working their position in their heads, and in the heads of each other. There's no step in the turn order for that, but it's in the game, and it's critical to victory. Apparently the game's designer had faith in us.
This was Struggle of Empires.
It's a Wallace title with all the Wallace widgets, economic drivers, sell your soul for money, refined simple rules, a tight little play and artwork that any Goa-Loving-Nancy-Boy can admire. But the nature of the game is to forge relationships and agreements, fleeting though they may be, and use them to mutual advantage. The rules pay ties handsomely (i.e., two players with equal power in a region both reap full benefits) so there's a lot of good reason to establish agreements with your fellow players in spite of war being the primary driver of action. Alliances are decided by auctions of all things, but only half way. Amongst allies there is often competition. Amongst enemies there is common ground. The rules of war are present in the instructions, but they aren't overbearing. The clear-cut rule structure describing play leaves vast areas of open options and decision points -- unfilled pages of paper with a pencil sitting beside them. The nature of the game is to grab the easy wins early, and then to wheel and deal to pick up the harder stuff. You need to manufacture a dozen little victories, and that means working with the other players. With care, you can thrive in this game. There's no artificial mechanic holding you back and truly superior play will result in a much better score than your opponents. That is, there is room for a runaway victory, a lackluster ending. So be it.
This was my first play, and I'll confess that I underestimated the game early on, expecting the kind of mechanical control I've seen come out of boxes with a similar look. Frankly, I took a beating because of it; I wasn't thinking broadly enough. I was playing in cut-and-dried mode and it was insufficient. I needed to be more adaptable and I needed to make that change in a hurry because the four guys sitting at the table with me were not pushovers. Clearly, this game had a lot of action that needed to happen above the game board, and if I wasn't playing there I was going to get nuked. That was a rush.
To be fair, Struggle of Empires provides a stronger technical framework than Junta and in this way is a more intellectually challenging game. But like Junta it leaves much of the gameplay up to the players, and the quality of your result will likely rely on the quality of the people sitting next to you more than anything else. Bad news -- those people may suck. There's also the possibility that they may be wildly mismatched. In a game such as this a player that is maleable becomes just another piece on the board, another cube or chit that is vastly more powerful than the others. These are the pitfalls.
Game design is like any other engineering process, full of tradeoffs and judgement calls. To some extent these designers have relinquished control and left a portion of the rules for you and your buddies to write, hoping you're qualified to do so. That's a gamble that may result in a lackluster session or even a game that runs completely off the rails. But if it doesn't, on the occasion that everyone hits their marks and delivers on their part of the deal, the rules of the game are the one thing that you'll likely retain no memory of. It's the unwritten part that you'll be talking about with your buddies on the golf course thirty years from now.
Editor's Note: Sag is filling in for Matt, who is on vacation today.We hope you like this article, as there are going to be more of them. Sag has agreed to join the Fort as a monthly contributor.