I've been spending a lot of time thinking about team games.
I mean "team" in its most literal sense. How many board game are there where you and another player truly share the win or loss through shared effort, without reservation or caveat? If you're talking cardboard the list is pretty doggone short.
Nearly a quarter of a century ago I visited Historicon for a day, more to gawk at the beautiful miniatures than to engage in the gaming itself. As I was walking through the main room late in the day a man looked at me and said, "John, thank God you're here. We've taken the liberty of setting up your units so you'd be ready to go." I was wearing a name tag -- I'd never met the man, and as I eased into the chair and told him he had the wrong John he said, "if you're breathing, you're the John we're looking for. The rules are easy OK? You'll have the simplest part. Your job is here -- to hold the center of our position." His finger was pointing at the middle of a big line of expertly painted minis. Byzantines, I was a big slice of infantry with a bit of cavalry on each end. On both my left and my right was the big armor -- knights on heavy horse that would be controlled by my two teammates, men I had met just 30 seconds prior. In miniature wargaming having a pulse may be all that's necessary to be welcomed into a game group, especially if you're more interested in catapults than lasers canons.
Team gaming. This odd moment in my history is what found its way to the top as I considered the concept. I was driving my daughter home from softball practice at the time. I had coached the jobs of all the positions in a throw-down play, and the importance of them working as a team. Softball and indeed virtually every athletic-endeavor on Earth have this foundational game concept -- team play. It's what we do. Even solitary games like golf and tennis assemble teams for special events, often the most anticipated moments in their respective sports. Yet boardgaming seems all but unaware of the concept. I've likely spent a thousand hours playing since the late 80s, but that moment at Historicon was the one that came to mind as I struggled for an example. I had been part of a team, and that had made a difference. It was a long time ago, but I had really enjoyed the play.
True team play in board games is pretty hard to find. It's not a crisis, but I'd kind of like to know why. I find it's absence perplexing. I don't pretend to be talented enough to design games so I'm not well qualified to place judgement on those who do. But either the market has chased everyone off the concept or there's some philosophical barrier to the idea multiple players sharing their fate, be it victory or loss. With very few exceptions it's just not done. Heck, we don't even like games with ties.
So I started to stew on it. I started to go looking for titles. Find the games with true teams, none of that unknown-allies bullshit that's so in vogue right now, no cooperative-play, no find-the-traitor or temporary-alliance-for-common-gain stuff. I'm talking matching-shirts kind of teams, one against another. I stumbled on just a few, and they pretty much fell into four categories:
- A few games with largely independent, homogeneous players such as Nexus Ops (with the optional team rule) Starcraft (also optional rule) and a few bang-head games a la Rush 'n Crush where getting one team member across the finish line first counts as a win for all. Much of the team concept here seems to be bolted onto a chasis designed for individual play.
- Some Bridge-family trick-taking games, though even Bridge dissolves one of the teams once a bid it taken. Double-Deck Pinochle is a clear team game. These games provide avenues to assist your teammate or work to their strengths. It also keeps one score for both of you.
- Some wagames such as Wooden Ships & Iron Men where large discrete units facilitate the concept. Wings of War is a more modern example. These games work the concept well because of the geometric nature of their play -- the movement mechanics give players good options to work in concert with each other. They also provide opportunities for strategy and tactics discussions between turns, coaching as well. But -- most wargames don't check this box. "For Two Players" is the general rule, so this category is thinner than it may first appear. The true beauty of the two titles above is that virtually any number can play, establishing as many teams with as many teammates (or none at all) as the players are interested in. They also clearly delineate team affiliation.
- Truly team-oriented gaming a la Memoir '44 Overlord. Now we're talking. In Overlord each side is a four-person team with a single Commander in Chief and three subordinate Generals per team. This is a great example of the concept, remarkable considering it's built as an afterthought out of 2-player game parts. A hierarchical relationship, there are two different roles in the mix on each side of the board and players have the opportunity to act in support of each other. Conceptually it's true team play. Each General is on the hook to succeed, but can and indeed must continue to contribute to the joint effort even if his position is collapsing. Success or failure is based upon the total success of all playing.
We spend our lives playing athletic games in teams. We accomplish our greatest triumphs in groups, taking joy from the camraderie. Indeed the concept is woven into the fabric of our ancient myths, where the forces of good must cooperate to defeat evil. It's harder to name competitions that don't play out in teams. What happened to boardgaming? Even kid games don't have it very often.
Back to Byzantium for a moment. Here's why that session stuck with me. One of the rules was that communication between players could only occur between turns, and it was limited to three words. I kid you not. In 950 AD battlefield communications were sent via horns and flags. More detailed messages could be delivered (too late) by messengers, but that wasn't very effective. This three-word message limitation was designed to reflect that. The let me ask about the rules, but not the battle. Finding this out was a bit intimidating since I hadn't so much as read the cover of the rulebook, and at the end of turn one I was already getting my ass kicked. The guy to my left had been forced to give ground early and an unlucky die roll had moved much of his force behind mine instead of straight backwards. My troops had been "shaken" -- unable to react effectively to conditions and with no clear ground behind me I couldn't pull back to regroup. Frankly, I didn't know what to do and in the face of a pretty dire circumstance I sent my teammates a message so concise I had a word to spare -- "now what?" I clearly recall one of the responses I received was "hold hold hold," and that was key. That's when the team thing came in. His message was short but it said more than three words. It said help is available. Keep contributing. Stay on the team. We can win this.
That was a great message to someone new to a game and in a jam. As it turned out our right flank began to deal solid damage and advance, so as the line of battle wheeled around in a counter-clock circle my troops got a bit of breathing room. They managed to regain their footing. They turned to keep facing the enemy -- apparently no small feat for a pre-gunpowder army, as I needed to make a tough roll of the dice to do it. I managed to hold the center, taking heavy damage and retreating ever so slowly. I was making mistakes, but I was doing some things right too. The enemy didn't break through. As our right came around the enemy was caught in a swinging door and had to retreat or risk being slammed into itself. A marginal victory due to our losses (minis people appear none too concerned about clearly-defined winning conditions either) but a win nonetheless. It wasn't mine; it was ours. I took joy in sharing the moment with two other players. Good gaming.
I've toyed with the idea of half-assing a team play out of existing titles, where each of three players sits down to a different game and the scores are somehow combined. Three games of Settlers, or a Settlers a Carc and a Kingsburg, that kind of thing. The trouble is that the plays would be largely or completely decoupled. Adding scores is just addition, not team play. In an open-field combat game your teammates come to your support, covering your flank, moving troops to your control or even stepping into harm's way to eat damage intended for you. You do the same for them. That coupling forms cohesion. It builds comraderie through shared risk and reward, and enhances the interpersonal aspect of the experience, likely with little or no addition to the size of the ruleset. It's foundational to the team concept too, regardless of endeavor. Weak players lift their game to give an unexpected edge, strong players take leadership roles. Everyone works to contribute because others are depending on them. Everyone plays harder.
So with 50 or 100 strategy games coming out per year in support of 2-4 players, why aren't designers trying to go after the 6+ slice of the market by working teams into the mix? Do we not like playing on teams? That's a serious question. Am I strange? Am I the only guy with interest in this kind of thing? It seems a natural place for some designers to go. But in a hobby designed to encourage human interaction and to nurture relationships, teammates may just step a bit too far over the line.
Sagrilarus is a monthly columnist for Fortress: Ameritrash.