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Gathering of Engineers

Ludographic considerations from the Silicon Forest

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Tension Is Good For You!

Last night, members of my group played Mesopotamia for the first time (it had been played before, but not by these particular members). After a close game that ended with Tim edging Mike for the win thanks to a couple of Gift of Marduk cards, Mike said that he thought the game was completely uninteresting, ending with what has started to become a trend - the claim that we might as well turn a card over and determine the result that way.

While I will concede that Meso does have some luck elements that can throw the game one way or the other, and that most of the time it seemed that choices were fairly apparent, I do take issue with the "turn of a card" statement. I have played many great card-driven wargames, among others, that were so close that the final result balanced literally on the throw of a die or what card a player had left in their hand. Unlike Meso, many of these games took up to five or six hours to play (our game took around 75 minutes including my somewhat addled description of the game, I suspect that an hour is not unreasonable).

Understand that while I was a good two turns out from completing the victory conditions, I found the game to be exciting and fun, completely the opposite of Mike's experience. I actually thought that he had the game completely sewn up a few turns earlier, even playing a Mana Theft card on him to slow him down a bit. Tim's surprise win came through play of a card that gave him the two mana he needed to take in his final offering. I enjoyed the way the board developed, even though I drew about elebenty billion plains tiles when what I really needed was a stone field. While most of my moves were pretty obvious, it was because of the goals I was choosing to pursue, not because there was literally nothing else to do. I felt the game design drove the behavior that the designer intended, such as protecting tribes carrying resources. I also felt the "story arc" of the game was good, with a slow start progressing through increasing choices and capabilities that ended with a close game.

The best part, though, was definitely the tension. Quite frankly, with equal opponents any game comes down to luck - how lucky you are and at what point. Every wargame I play is like this to some extent. Get a lucky roll at a critical point, and suddenly the BEF is kicked out of Gallipoli by a couple of Turk corps. Hannibal wins at Cannae against overwhelming force because the opponent can't respond to a Double Envelopment card. These are the games that I remember most fondly, because they give good story. And they give good story because in the back of your mind you know that at any second things could go all pear-shaped for you or your opponent. And that, my friends, is tension.

Tension is a staple of the cinema, of literature, of music, of the theater, of life itself. What will happen next? A good author sets up the right amount of tension so that the reader is aware that the situation is dire, but not so much that at some point you say "Enough already!" I felt that the recent remake of King Kong failed in this respect, first because everyone knows how the damned thing ends, but also because Jackson chose to keep hitting us over the head with thrill rides on Big Ape Island. Apatasaurus stampede, big fight with T-Rexes, very large icky bugs and leeches, scary natives about to disperse Jack Black's brains out on a rock, it was all just a bit too much after a while.

Done in the right amounts, however, tension is da bomb. Hitchcock was a master, slowly building up tension through a variety of techniques over the course of the film until we were all sitting on the edge of our seats. He played us like fine violins, and we paid for the privilege.

A game is, of course, not a movie, although I believe a good game shares some elements with story. First of all, a film is going to be the same every time you see it (director's cuts aside), and the viewer's role is minimal. In a game, the player's role is primary, and the interaction between players a close second. It's all action/reaction, stress/release, tension/relaxation. The best football games ever are the ones where you don't know who will win until the end, and the truly great games are where teams pull out that one in a thousand run to win at the buzzer. It is exactly the same for games. I've played games that felt like I was teaching a clinic, and they were the most truly boring games I ever played. Give me a squeaker every time, win or lose.

So what exactly is it that makes tension work? It's pacing. It's having the game slowly gain momentum over time so that early decisions (both intentional and random) aren't nearly as important as the ones at the critical point somewhere near the end of the game. King Kong failed on both counts, taking too long to set up and then giving us too many thrills in the middle (the fight with the airplanes at the end mostly used tension by having Naomi Watts slip on a ladder, the rest was just rooting for the monkey). That pacing also applies to how fast the game moves along, how much downtime players have to put up with, etc. Sunriver Games' Havoc does this by increasing the value of battles, Meso by requiring players to increase their mana capability to better get their higher value offerings dunked, but also through not knowing what cards players may have drawn and through randomly building the board. There are many paths to tension, but as in all art, it's about what you put where.

I'm not saying that Meso was one of those games, nor am I saying it meets the criteria for a great game. I only know that I enjoyed my first playing and look forward to seeing how it stacks up over time. What I am saying is that playing Meso is only like turning over a card if all you care about is whether or not you win. If luck is going to ruin the game for you, then I'd say that you shouldn't play games that have a luck factor, although I know that this is not a true statement for anyone I play with, especially Mike (who is planning to perhaps play Rommel in the Desert, a wargame that rolls buckets of dice, this very evening). The random element (or hidden element in some cases) is what makes the game exciting.

Don't think that I'm of the opinion that luck is the cat's pajamas, here. After three games of Twilight Imperium, which I really liked the first time I played (with a major rule misinterpreted thanks to a misprinted player aid), the luster is off of the game because it is possible to be completely screwed by a single really bad card draw of lots of scoring cards. That's too much luck, especially in a long game. On the other hand, the 18xx series, which features not only zero luck other than the initial draw, but also zero hidden elements, holds no interest for me at all. As with all things, luck is great in moderation.

Interestingly, I felt that Meso was essentially Roads & Boats Lite, with added luck elements and minus the overly complex endgame, the risk of blowing a cycle that would screw you for the rest of the game, and the length. For me, the negatives of R&B outweighed the luck factor in Meso by quite a margin, while for Mike the opposite was true. Different strokes and all, but I know for me that it's all about pacing and tension, in a story well-told. When I've lost those close six hour wargames in the eleventh hour (in Successors, that has been literally true when Salvation In The Eleventh Hour has been played on me), the tension and story arc made it all more than worthwhile and entertaining.

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