Monday, September 10, 2007

Wrestling with Long games

How do you approach a complex game? Continuing my thoughts from two weeks ago, I'm debating how you can get games of a more rambling nature onto the table. Rambling in this case defined as games longer than 2 hours - which seems to be the point at which players start saying no.

The big question in my mind is if it is worth having the first session be a 'teaching' game. basically a game with a strict time or turn limit, with the stated purpose of teaching the rules.

Many people seem to espouse this approach, but it's never really felt right to me.

1) If the game is long by nature, then a shortened version doesn't capture the game.
A game like revolution is only 5 turns - at roughly 1 turn an hour. A two turn game has missed two-thirds of the game, and much of the benefit of a longer game (long-term strategy) is aborted. I'd argue that one of the key selling points of a longer game is the ability to choose to play for the long term. Taking short turn hits to position/income/whatever with the expectation to do better farther into the game.1

2) Bringing the same players together for a second game is hard.
I consider myself lucky to have a smaller game group that's been meeting weekly for years. There's 5 of us, but with life being what it is, it is not uncommon for the group to be four. Invariably, if we play a longer game, one player isn't there. And the next time the game is brought out, they are. I can only imagine how much worse this would be with a large/more infrequent group. So, if rules will always be taught, why play an aborted game?

There are plenty of reasons for running a shortened game, but I've rarely managed to convince myself it is a good idea. This cropped up because last week I ran a shortened game of American Megafauna at EndGame. I wanted to try out third edition/SOS style play and AM is a game that is going to be at least 3 hours the first time you play. I decided to call the game after 2 hours of play, and ultimately it worked. American Megafauna2 is a game that doesn't really call for a specific game length, so 'artificially' making a game timer trigger then endgame wasn't a problem. So a shorter game worked. Yay!

But I still don't think that it is the solution for all longer games. Mostly, I think the first play of longer games require players to commit to not worrying about victory. Yes, someone is going to win3, but the goal in the first play is to see what the game is like, and learn what tactics can survive through the mid-game into the end, and which ones are dead ends.

Unfortunately, giving up on victory is a hard thing to do - especially for a game that lasts two or three times as long as other available games. But the reward... well, that's for me to have more people who know how to play longer games.


1Some shorter games manage this as well (usually the ones that last closer to 2 hours than one), but most shorter games are much more unforgiving of sacrificial ploys or delaying tactics. Some shorter games are good precisely because players must time everything 'just right' (ex. figuring out when to migrate from money to points in Puerto Rico) but don't permit players to play much beyond the current board position.

2Phil Eklund is the designer of American Megafauna. And the Lords of... series. His games are truly odd unweildy beasts, and I'll get back to you with my impressions of them eventually, but one interesting facet is that the games don't really have a specific endpoint. Sure, the rules tell you when to end the game, but then they also say "or when everyone agrees to stop".

3 And yes, the person who has read the rules/played the game has an advantage.

1 comment:

Fraser said...

I suppose it depends on how you view a teaching game. If we are playing a teaching game, it quite often consists of playing the first few turns only. Basically enough to give you an idea of the game, long enough or far enough in that the payers have covered most of the major events or mechanics or things relevant to the game. We would then either decide to play the game to completion, or start from scratch.