Way, way back in the mists of time – well, about a year anyway – before there was the term “Ameritrash” I used to call the sorts of games that I like the most “multiplayer conflict games”. Since this is not only a bit of a mouthful, but uninspiring and not terribly meaningful either, it’s no surprise that it didn’t catch on in the way that Ameritrash did as a term. But I still find myself trotting it out from time to time because the games that it’s supposed to refer to are still my favourite games and because the concept of AT and my concept of MCG’s overlap heavily but have significant areas of territory which they share with other game styles.
I’ve always seen AT games as basically falling into three styles, although horror games, with their peculiar thematic requirements, sometimes fall outside this classification. There’s the classic role-playing style adventure games such as Descent and Space Crusade, which I don’t find interest me much. The smallest clade is backstabbing negotiation games like Junta and Bootleggers and these I do enjoy from time to time. Then there’s my favourites, the MCG’s, games which can be loosely defined by the following criteria. They always involve manoeuvring units on a map, always involve conflict between those units (usually via a random or semi-random mechanic) the outcome of which is the largest determinant of the eventual winner and usually (though not always) feature the ability of the players to grow and improve the forces at their command during the course of the game and always support more than two players.
It’s the last two criteria that differentiate MCG’s for wargames, with which they have a lot in common. There’s been some interesting discussion on the overlap between AT’s and wargames and I have no doubt that wargames were a significant contributor in the early evolution of AT games. One only has to look at early classics like Dragon Pass – a fantasy battle game which basically uses bog-standed 80’s wargame rules with tons of added chrome for the “exotic” units – to see how the relationship started. I’m not sure the two have that much in common nowadays, but the roots are certainly there. Anyway, those two criteria are what makes MCG’s, to my mind, more interesting than wargames to play. The multiplayer aspect gives you access to the negotiation meta-game and all the fun and variety which it can provide, while the ability to expand your forces means you have a lot more potential variety in strategy and tactics at your disposal. I appreciate that putting either aspect into a historical wargame (with the occasional quirky exception like Friedrich, which I’ve really enjoyed) would instantly ruin that game from a wargamers’ simulationist point of view but hey, each to their own. Another overlap is with civilisation style games in which the economics of building new units is powered as much, often more, by elements other than control of resources and are less interesting to me as a result. Yet another is with “waros”, Euro games with conflict such as Shogun and Imperial, which often limit the ability of units to manoeuvre and cut back the influence of negotiation to near-negligible levels. I do have quite a bit of time for these games since they provide some of the sort of play I like and come with many of the advantages of Eurogames without many of the disadvantages.
It’s the immense potential for variety that attracts me to MCG’s. If you throw strategic manoeuvre, the machinations of other players, diplomacy and the ability to combine and improve different unit types for different jobs together with a big dollop of randomness into a melting pot then you’ve got an astonishingly effective recipe. The result has the potential to appeal to a range of different skills (planning, organic strategy, tactics, negotiation, number crunching), can be both exciting and a satisfying workout for the brain and best of all manages to do all of these things at the same time.
However, sadly for people like me who love these games, the style almost inevitably comes with some baggage. Most of this baggage results from the fact that if you put more than two players together moving units across the same map you have the potential for two (or more) of them to gang up on one of the others. The first and most obvious result of this is that the diplomatic meta-game can often completely trump any other aspect of the play in determining the winner. More subtly it is prone to leading to situations where one player, who might actually not have played particularly well, has an undue amount of influence over who wins through a choice of who they choose to attack or not to attack. This is often known as “kingmaking”. Finally the fact that everyone can see who’s in the lead leads to the kill-the-leader scenario where other players put aside their plans and grievances for a short time to unit and peg back the leading player.
Is this stuff always bad? Well, no. Kill-the-leader isn’t really an issue unless it extends the play time beyond the point where people are bored of the game. The overarching importance of negotiation isn’t a problem if that’s the primary thing you’re looking for in a game (although if that’s true you might as well play nothing but Diplomacy). Kingmaking isn’t an issue if you don’t care who ends up being king and enjoy the role of being the king-maker as much as winning. But they often are problematic and in the end, if you play a lot of these games, they start to seem tired and overused, much like the scourge of hidden victory points, that omnipresent heal-all of bad Eurogame design. So naturally, I’m always on the lookout for MCG’s which manage to escape from these limitations. And as it turns out, since the limitations are imposed on the genre from the very nature of the play, escaping them is extremely difficult.
But there are a few which have managed it. And, unsurprisingly, several of them count amongst my absolute favourite games.
The first I ever found was the soon-to-be-reprinted Avalon Hill classic Titan. Titan solves the MCG baggage problem in an extraordinarily simple way – rather than having free movement on the board, the movement options of a group of units is severely limited. Suddenly, there’s much less point to negotiation, or trying to play kingmaker, or trying to kill the leader because there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to move into position to actually attack the player you want! In addition, it has a points system which makes attempting the sort of war-of-attrition that kingmaking and kill-the-leader usually involves extremely unattractive since the attacked player often gains as much, if not more, in points than he looses in units. The diplomatic aspect is retained by moving it from a game-wide position into negotiation to resolve battles. And the result is a staggering game which has all the fun of and none of the baggage but still, unfortunately, has a bit of an issue with play time. Let’s hope that whatever Valley end up doing to the game goes some way toward ameliorating this issue, and also that they leave the potential to play with the old style rules in, just for die-hard fans like me.
The second one that I played was Nexus Ops. Nexus Ops solves the baggage problem through the ingenious way in which players collect victory points. Each turn you get a card with an objective on it and an amount of points you can claim for completing the objective. In a fairly short time you’ll have collected quite a handful of these cards which will likely feature a diverse array of objectives, usually concerned with killing things but with variety in terms of what needs killing, where it needs to be done, what needs to do it and how many you need to polish off. Much of the strategy in the game revolves around trying to engineer situations in which you can attack in the knowledge that you’re trying to fulfil one or more of these objectives. Avoiding the baggage comes from the fact that the variety in the objectives means that in order to collect as many as possible in the shortest possible time (and hopefully thereby win) you’re going to have to attack all the other players in the game. Negotiation still plays a part in trying to set things up and exploit weakness but ultimately everyone knows that you’re all going to end up having to scrap together to get those VPs. However, while the variety might be sufficient to avoid the common MCG problems, it ultimately all boils down to the same sort of thing – attack and kill stuff. As a result the game can keep fast and simple but, while fun, has a limited longevity, especially compared with other MCGs which thrive on amount of different situations they can throw up.
The third game I found to sidestep the problems runs along similar lines, but succeeds where Nexus Ops fails by having genuine variety in the objectives on offer, at the cost of a considerable increase in complexity and play time. That game is Twilight Imperium 3. This uses an objectives-based system but the clever thing here is that rather than having a system which forces you into combat on many different fronts, the objectives simply don’t reward the sort of behaviour that leads to problems in MCGs. Two of you can gang up on a neighbour if you want in TI3, and you’ll almost certainly take him out, but you won’t gain many VP from doing so and as a result players who play a more balanced game will streak in to an uncatchable lead. Kingmaking and kill-the-leader are similarly unproductive, especially when you consider that a wise player will usually have made contingency plans on how to get his last objectives in advance. You can negotiate for position and alliances just like you can in other MCGs but again, the need to claim objectives ultimately overrides whatever deals you make. In a nice twist, TI3 goes on to ensure that there’s still plenty of talking in the game through the Trade and Political phases which can help to satisfy die-hard fans of negotiation without it ultimately deciding a winner.
One thing all three of these games have in common is an open, symmetrical board. To my mind this is going to be an almost certain precondition for an MCG to sidestep the baggage. If you’re playing on any kind of “geographic” map then it’s likely that you won’t be sharing a potential border with all of the other players and/or there will be the potential to retreat into heavily defensible “islands”. As soon as you either of these situations arises then, no matter how cleverly the rest of the mechanics are balanced, you’re back in to a situation where kill-the-leader and kingmaking are possible again because the effect different players can have on the fortunes of other players is unbalanced, even if everything else is perfectly in sync.
So in all the multitude of MCGs that I’ve played (and I’ve played a lot) I only found three that stepped above the inbuilt limitations of the genre. Which, to my mind, just goes to prove how hard it is and leads me to end my piece with a question – given that you all out there, with your combined experience, will inevitably have played a lot more of these games than even I’ve managed – have you found any others that sidestep the baggage?