Friday, January 26, 2007

Complexity in the Galaxy

I recently checked out a news item on Comsimworld that announced that a gentleman named Charles Duke had designed a galactic empire game called Down with the Empire. From the description, Down with the Empire sounded a lot like Freedom and the Galaxy (designed by John Butterfield and Howard Barasch in 1979), the old SPI game which was an homage (ripoff) off the Star Wars movies.

I own Freedom in the Galaxy, but the game always seemed more fun in theory than in practice. How could anyone but an oh-so-serious grognard resist the theme? Lead an array of cute and wacky characters as they rebel against an evil Galactic Empire. Or direct the forces of oppression and treachery as they blow up whole planets in their dread quest to stamp out the fires of interstellar freedom. Old fashioned space opera turned into a strategy game. Great stuff—at least potentially.

But Freedom in the Galaxy always seemed to me to be a sad mismatch between theme and design. The theme seemed to be crying out for a beer-and-pretzels game that players could play in one sitting (maybe a very long sitting, but still…). Instead, SPI gave the gaming world an intricate simulation with a playing time estimated at ten to twenty hours or more (I’ve never finished a game). The art work was appealingly comic book, but the actual design seemed aimed more at lovers of Highway to the Reich than gamers who were looking for something only twice as complicated as Axis & Allies. Although some people were enthusiastic about the game (and it was reprinted by Avalon Hill), I always thought that SPI missed a great opportunity by not designing a space opera game that was more accessible to the casual gamer.

So it was not bad news to me that Down with the Empire seemed to be a game in the same ballpark as Freedom in the Galaxy. It’s not as if we have a whole lot of popular space games. Fantasy Flight’s Twilight Imperium 3rd edition seems to be the reigning galactic monarch, and there don’t seem to be many successors on the horizon.

I followed the links to the Dan Verssen website and learned that Down with the Empire can be bought as either a vassal download game, or as a pdf make-it-yourself game. Either version costs $20. Not bad, if you don’t mind playing on your computer, or cutting and pasting all the maps and counters that are required.

And I saw that the rules could be downloaded for free. This is always a good sign. It’s almost like being able to test drive a car before buying. After downloading I saw that the rules ran 82 pages. Well, actually, 82 pages of rules and another 30 pages or more of appendices and designers notes.

Even a quick scan of the rules revealed that Down with the Empire seemed to be a do-over of Freedom in the Galaxy. The characters perform lots of the same missions, right down to the prisoner interrogation mission. There is a secret rebel base and an Imperial planet-destroying mega-weapon. Down with the Empire seems to be Mr. Duke’s attempt to get Freedom in the Galaxy right.

Well, more than once have I found myself wishing that someone would re-design some games that are a near miss. And this re-design impulse can certainly lead to some good games. Ed Beach’s appreciation for the flawed A Mighty Fortress led him to design Here I Stand. I can’t comment on the quality of Down with the Empire because I haven’t played it, but it looks to be a labor of love. Quick rip-off games don’t have rule books that are 80 plus pages of double-column small type. There may be sci-fi gamers who end up being profoundly grateful to Charles Duke for giving them an alternative to Freedom in the Galaxy.

But why did it have to be more complex than the original? (Mr. Duke might answer: “To squeeze in all the things I thought should be there.”) The Appalachian Gamers had trouble with the 40 or so pages of Here I Stand; I wouldn’t be so foolish as to try to sell them on the complexities of Down with the Empire.

The gaming community doesn’t desperately need another Star Wars-type game anymore than it needs another Lord of the Rings game. But if Lucasfilm were to try to create a new Star Wars strategy game aimed at the same gamer audience that made War of the Ring a success, I would hope the game would have roughly the same complexity as War of the Ring. There is a huge gap on the complexity spectrum between Star Wars Risk and Freedom in the Galaxy, and maybe someday it will be filled.

Meanwhile, those gamers with a love of space opera who have a higher tolerance for complex rules than yours truly might want to check out Down with the Empire (www.dvg.com).

4 comments:

Greg Aleknevicus said...

It's very easy to simply add more rules to a game as ideas occur. Such thinking can be common amongst new designers and it leads to monstrosities that have 80-page rulebooks. Often such lengthy tomes are touted by their designers as evidence of a game's "completeness" when it's actually a stronger indication of its unplayability.

Philippe said...

Cue one of my favorite quotes:
"If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter."
Marcus T. Cicero

huzonfirst said...

Apropos of what both Greg and Philippe are saying, I think the skill set of the designers may be an issue. SPI had some of the finest game designers in the world on their staff during their heyday, but were any of them capable of designing a tight, mid-level complexity game? I remember when Redmond Simonson came up with Starforce and Sorcerer, they were considered two of the lightest things SPI had ever done, but both were true hex-and-counter wargames, with the added complexity of some unique and innovative mechanics.

The same thing may be true today. How many wargame designers would be capable of designing the mid-level game you're looking for, Kris? It truly is a different skill than standard wargame design. I suspect that achieving that goal is one of the many reasons for the remarkable popularity of Twilight Struggle. Co-designer Jason Matthews is a good friend and I know that he's successfully kept feet in both the eurogaming and wargame camps. That kind of exposure was needed to come up with a lighter and shorter game like TS. Hopefully, we'll see more and more folks who straddle the two camps getting into game design, so that the skills necessary to create a lighter space opera game will be available to tap into.

Chris Farrell said...

Man, I was kind of a fan of FitG, and when I saw that headline on CSW I flagged it, but didn't read it, because I haven't had good luck personally with DVG. After you pointed it out, I checked it out. A 100 page rulebook? Wow. Even if the page count is higher because the format isn't as tight as a typical AH/GMT/SPI game, that's still insane.

That said, there clearly *are* experienced American game designers who can design excellent, playable, mid-level wargames. Let's not forget classics like Hannibal, Napoleon, Storm over Arnhem, or Rommel in the Desert; or recent classics like Hammer of the Scots. And Avalon Hill's bread and butter was medium-complexity games, and not so much the behemoths that we sometimes remember.

The talent is clearly out there; the designers and developers who worked on those games are still around. I think what's not there is the demand. With a lot of pressure on the low end from highly professional euros, and with hard-core wargamers wanting more complicated games even if they don't play them, and with GMT being able to move plenty of product even with apparently virtually no attention to either development or quality control, the market is just a little messed up right now. Once customers start demanding good medium-weights, and stop paying for games of questionable quality, companies will start being willing to pay for good designers and good developers instead of skimping and taking a probabilistic approach to getting good games published.