A couple of months ago I had the pleasure of reviewing A Few Acres of Snow, Martin Wallace’s game of the American colonial wars. In short, I decided it was a deep and demanding game that was worthwhile only if you had the time - and a willing opponent - to devote to working through the strategies properly. Alas, it seemed that some people took my advice only too well and worked through the strategies in such intricate and amazing detail that they found a way, if executed with great precision, to break the game and pretty much guarantee a win for the English.
I won’t go into the details here - see the many relevant threads about the game on boardgamegeek.com if you’re interested. Martin has now released a rules fix for those as want it and everyone can go back to playing the game in their chosen manner: a win-win situation for all concerned. However in the interim a lot of ink was spilt, a lot of ire was raised and a number of sad stories generated, the saddest of which must be this, from our very own user Sagrilarius:
My buddy had A Few Acres of Snow set up on open gaming night looking for player, and a guy showed up with a printout of the strategy from the web. He wanted to play it, but my buddy turned him down. So instead of fellowship and recreation, he was stuck holding a handful of papers with no game to play
Which is a terrible indictment of the state of mind of certain sections of the hobby, certainly. But the more I think about it, the more I’m beginning to wonder if the blame for this is being allocated in the right places.
For starters, I’ve heard the suggestion that there’s something bad about some gamers sitting down, fired up with excitement for a new title, ripe with possibilities, and playing it over and over again to the point where they can discover and execute with a high level of skill and detail, strategies that are virtually unbeatable. That demonstrates huge replay value to the game. And isn’t a lack of re-playability one of the things we commonly complain about on this site in regards to modern board game design?
While it’s terrible that someone should want to win at all costs in this manner, what’s really culpable here is the style of game that lends itself to players developing and sticking to nigh-on unbeatable scripted strategies. Consider this. At roundabout the time this comment was posted I was enjoying my very first game of the new year, my first ever play of the old Avalon Hill classic block game Napoleon: The Waterloo Campaign. It turns out to be a fantastic game for playing in the pub since it wraps in 60-90 minutes and has a relatively small table footprint, while also being a good example of everything that’s great about old game design, combining a chess-like sense of maneuver with lots of good, old-fashioned dice rolling. But while my opponent considered his options, I glanced over the rules and saw something you virtually never see in modern titles: a short strategy guide.
A lot gamers will tell you that exploring the strategies available in a game is one of the most enjoyable and interesting, if not the most enjoyable and interesting, part of exploring a board game. This mind set is aggravated by the sort of gamer who plays a game over and over seeking scripted strategies before posting them to the web because they’ve spoilt this kind of enjoyment. So what the hell did the designers think they were doing printing strategy notes right there in the rules where every gamer could find it, and possibly have his appreciation of the game ruined?
The answer is simply that the game is resistant to scripting. Through the application of very basic concepts such as spatial maneuver over a relatively wide area, four different unit types, and a goodly wedge of randomness and hidden information the game can generate far, far more possible game states than are scriptable. This has nothing at all to do with either depth of strategy or complexity, as a quick analysis of classic abstracts will reveal. Draughts (known as Checkers in certain benighted corners of the world) is not especially deep but it is resistant to scripting due to the relatively large board and consequent large number of possible game states. Go is so utterly resistant to scripting that even seasoned masters of the game admit that there’s an element of subjectivity to the play, and yet it’s easy to learn. Napoleon itself is neither particularly long nor complex. And yet the modern fashion for short and simple games has somehow led us, via a squalid and unnecessary back alley known as “perfect game balance”, to a point where games can commonly be analysed, scripted, and broken.
Which brings us back to A Few Acres of Snow. Because one thing that’s interesting about this situation is that A Few Acres of Snow does not look at all like a game that conforms rigidly and slavishly to the “balance” paradigm, seeing as it’s massively asymmetric, nor does it look like a game that ought to be scriptable seeing as it has a big spatial element, some randomness and a very variable game state. Indeed I’m at something of a loss to explain it: my guess is that has something to do with the manner in which the game limits the option of geographical expansion early on, allowing players a brief window in which the game state is relatively static in order to build the basics of an unbeatable strategy. That would also explain why it requires such precision in order to pull off.
While writing this article I couldn’t help but recall my initial experiences with Titan some ten years ago now. After playing a couple of times I went and dug around on the Internet in order to fuel my enthusiasm for the game. One thing I turned up was a little site I’d never come across before, called boardgamegeek, and the rest, as they say, is history. The other was David DesJardine’s strategy guide. I read that and inwardly digested it and it was very helpful: it put me on a level playing field with my friends, who’d been playing Titan for a couple of months before I joined in. And in spite of being fairly comprehensive, that’s all it did, and all a Titan strategy article will ever do. After ten years’ of playing I’m still loosing to the best players, and I probably always will, because there’s so much subjective, situational strategy and tactics in the game that a broken strategy will simply never emerge. If you nose around there a number of other games for which strategy guides of a similar nature exist without managing to elicit outrages howls of “broken!” from the gaming cognoscenti: Hannibal: Rome versus Carthage, Through The Ages, and Chaos in the Old World to name just three, very deliberately picked as a varied lot to demonstrate that genre and mechanics are no inherent barriers to avoiding a script.
It’s interesting that people can and do write strategy scripts for video games without causing much fuss. I’ve used them myself - I can remember one for Master of Orion 2 that I used over and over again and still managed to elicit a lot of enjoyment from the game, partially because it took a little skill to implement properly and partially because it’s always great to conquer the galaxy even if you’re doing it with your brain turned off. But no-one particularly raises a fuss about these and the reason, of course it obvious: it’s only you and the AI. You’re not going to be spoiling anyone else’s fun by following a script, it’s just your choice. So while it’s sad that so many gamers seem to have forgotten how great it is to play strategy titles that can’t be scripted, the saddest thing of all about scripting in board games is that enough gamers seem to have forgotten that the best thing about playing board games is playing them with other people.