Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Göthe takes on The Virgin Queen

Despite having turned on Here I Stand after a handful of games, I picked up The Virgin Queen at GMT West last year – lured perhaps by the lower turn count, the more open game situation, the promise of more reasonable rules for playing with fewer players, and the memory that I did enjoy Here I Stand for a number of games before it became tedious.

What I find interesting about both games is that they seem to defy basic critical analysis as games for me. Göthe says that in a work of criticism, we should figure out what something is trying to do, whether it succeeded in doing it, and whether it was worth doing. That first question is where The Virgin Queen mystifies me. OK, we know that it's trying to portray the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. But that's too broad to be helpful. What is the game trying to say? And how, exactly, is it trying to say it?

It's clearly not going the abstract, high-level route favored by many successful thematic games: Beowulf, Settlers, Lord of the Rings, Pandemic, Modern Art, Sekigahara, Napoleon's Triumph, Rommel in the Desert, or perhaps Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage, just to pick a few. These games try to focus on just one or at most a few really essential things about the topic (Bowen Simmons used the term quiddity) and use that as the cornerstone of the design. Clearly, limiting scope is a foreign concept to The Virgin Queen, and the many and varied subsystems (mini-games, almost) are given fairly equal design weight.

Another design option is to focus on the decision making of the historical parties and try to convey the forces that pressed on them. This is the method Mark Herman called out in the designer's notes for For the People, and while I don't think it was particularly successful there, a great example of a game system where it works is the Great Campaigns of the American Civil War series (the most recent, in-print installment being Battle Above the Clouds). While Battle Above the Clouds' game systems are inherently abstract, with dice rolls controlling movement and initiative even though historical commanders knew quite well how far a division could march in a day, it masterfully conveys the confusion, uncertainty, and murk those commanders faced in a way that remains fun to play and recreates the historical press-your-luck decision making pressures. Another classic game in this mold is Up Front, and Labyrinth might be trying to go this route also. Clearly this is also not the approach The Virgin Queen is taking. The trade-offs made by players in The Virgin Queen are fundamentally arbitrary – Elizabeth I didn't have some spreadsheet in which she allocated some of her budget to Shakespeare, some of it to New World piracy, and some of it to whacking Catholics. She certainly never thought, "hey, if I can avoid getting married ever, I'll earn a bunch of VP!". I've never been able to get my head around how the cards in The Virgin Queen (or The Napoleonic Wars) are supposed to be driving authentic, or even interesting, decision-making pressures.

Another way you can go is to be representational. The idea here is to present a playing field that is as rich a simulation as is possible or reasonable as constrained by the game's complexity targets, then throw out the historical personalities and let the players step into their place. Obviously, a key here is being able to blend sensible abstraction of key elements and knowing when simulation detail is useful in either producing interesting and evocative decisions or eliciting emotional response, but the idea of authentically portraying processes is key. Vance von Borries is a master of this sort of design, and Mark Simonitch's '4X games are great examples of games that both focus in on critical factors, abstracting the rest, while also having just the right amount of simulation detail. Other great examples to my mind include Europe and Asia Engulfed, EastFront and Downtown. This is an approach in which the key difficulty is knowing how much complexity is sensible, something about which reasonable people can disagree. Regardless, The Virgin Queen isn't doing this either. The idea that many of the game's manifold distinct and abstract subsystems – patronage, piracy, naval operations, religious conflict – are modeling historical processes is laughable.

The Virgin Queen, like Here I Stand, feels very similar to other "card-driven" GMT titles like Twilight Struggle, Paths of Glory, Barbarossa to Berlin, and The Napoleonic Wars. They are all resource management games where the resources being managed are abstract and not really in service of any thematic focus. The subject matter is just window dressing – sometimes rather nice window dressing, but still. These games just seem to be trying to present the players with constant tough decisions. As games, they are successful to the extent that they can do that. Paths of Glory: definitely, at least for a few games; Barbarossa to Berlin: yes, at least when the cardplay is viewed in conjunction with the more representational on-board tactical game; Twilight Struggle: for me, eh, not so much, although others find the decision-making more compelling; The Napoleonic Wars: no.

If this is the this way we're going to view the games, both Here I Stand and The Virgin Queen must ultimately be judged failures. They don't reliably present tough or even interesting choices once you understand the game's basic structure. And they don't deliver those choices in a timely manner.

I have more beefs than this with The Virgin Queen. The game is unstable and balance is suspect; the narrative tension is absent; it's overly complex and overly long; the design of the card deck doesn't produce useful suspense (unchanged from Here I Stand). I could enumerate and detail these and other mechanical problems. At the end of day, though, the game simply lacks a coherent thematic focus and so it lives and dies on its ability to rapidly present the players with tense decisions. Which for me, it doesn't do.

Is this sort of thing really worth doing, especially in the space of very long, very complex games? To me, not especially. For one, getting the balance right – delivering these constant, difficult decisions to the players – is technically challenging even in a short game and gets dramatically more difficult to the point of practical impossibility as you add length, rules, and scope. For another, this is a very well-mined field. Games that deliver tough choices without much thematic payload are a dime a dozen.

I'm aware that lots of people are rather fond of both games, and even think of them as highly thematic, so I have to ask myself: maybe there is something else going on? Obviously, they find something there that I don't, and it's pretty unlikely that they are just wrong. I think that The Virgin Queen and Here I Stand succeed for some players for exactly the same reasons that an entirely different set of players are drawn to Arkham Horror: the players bring the fun to the table themselves, and use the game only as a touchstone. The period of Martin Luther and Elizabeth I is endlessly fascinating and a lot of history geeks know a little to a lot about it, and The Virgin Queen serves up nerdtropes for the knowledgable player to riff on. It's a vehicle for players to share a historical experience, which is fine, but it's not really a game in the sense that I understand games. Even by these standards I think The Virgin Queen experience doesn't really work for the same reasons Arkham Horror doesn't really work – the historical tidbits it serves up are infrequent and structurally incoherent – but hey, if you want to have some Reformation-period fun and wear an Elizabeth I nametag, there isn't much else available.


  1. Have not tried Virgin Queen yet, but have played HIS with you twice I think. While I share your view that it's overlong for what it is, I do think it has a pretty tight narrative DEPENDING on who you play. As the Protestant player your central concern is can my new religion spread successfully? For the Papacy it's can I stop this heresy? FOr the Ottoman is Can I triumph over the Christians? I thought those are all very central to their role in the game, too bad it took too long.
    SOunds to me that VG doesn't even deliver on that same narrative feel...

  2. Great article here Chris. And at its heart I agree. I have played HIS about 5 times now, and the online sessions are not nearly as fun because I think where this game succeeds to overcome its failures is in the interaction with the six players. I cannot play this more than once or twice a year because for a 6+ hour game, it is fairly random. As you said, the card decisions are never agonizing like they are in Paths of Glory where I often want to spend the card in all the ways it can be spent. HIS it is always OPS (90%) and event are fairly rare.

    However, the experience of playing with the same 6 guys every year at BGG.Con makes me come back to this title.

  3. Here is another way to review Virgin Queen.

  4. Thoughtful article, as usual. Certainly your definition of thematic is different than most people's. Modern Art's theme was perfectly chosen for the auction mechanic that he came up with, but I think most people's idea of theme is the other way around. Maybe theme has become too loaded of a word.

    There is definitely a lot of historical content in Virgin Queen. Your complaint seems to be more that the historical content comes out randomly, disjointedly, and with no narrative arc, which I can agree with. But the criticism of the game's systems as being ahistorical doesn't bother me as much, perhaps because I know very little about the history myself. So naval units move around and shoot each other, that's about as much as I know anyways.

    The resources you are managing in the game may be abstract, but I would imagine that nations did have to make some sort of choices about what to do. OK, they didn't have a spreadsheet, but it makes sense at some level that could prioritize some things over others. But it's certainly a difficult part of a game like this, assigning veeps to various actions. Is controlling a major city worth as much as marrying off your heir? As much as having a scientist discover something? In real life those are unrelated events. Still, rulers of the time clearly valued those things, so Virgin Queen tries to assign values to those events in the game. That seems reasonable to me.

    Now, I do agree that the game fails to provide any narrative arc, and that's where the game fails. I think this is a failure of the events primarily. Even when the events you are dealt are playable for your particular nation (all too rarely), you don't really feel like those events happened in the game. Paths of Glory gets this right -- when you play the Tsar Takes Command, or Romania enters the war, you really know those particular events happened. It creates something memorable about your game. The opposite of this would be a game like 1960, where the events are completely faceless. No one will remember if Kennedy got the Catholic support in your game, because all it did was place some extra cubes. Too many events in Virgin Queen are like that, essentially glorified or extra CP. They have no lasting effect on the game that would create that narrative we're looking for. I wish more games tried, like Paths of Glory, to provide a more scripted game with events that advance the state of the game. Probably that approach has its own problems too, but it's disappointing not to see it tried more.

  5. I totally agree with your comment about "the players bring the fun to the table themselves". Like with skippen's comment above; he has the experience and anticipation of playing HiS against the same group of people at BGG every year. You could probably put Dune or Civ or some other good, long, 6-player game on the table in front of that group and they would have fun.

    But I also think that the very fact that HiS and VQ are over-complicated is part of the appeal in some sense. Partly you get the sense of accomplishment that you figured it out, the fact that you conquered the system, even if you got crushed by the other players. But mostly I just have to quote Douglas Adams here. This is what he has to say about astrology. Just replace "astrology" with "Virgin Queen" (and "stars and planets" with "wars and patronage" or something):

    “In astrology the rules happen to be about stars and planets, but they could be about ducks and drakes for all the difference it would make. It's just a way of thinking about a problem which lets the shape of that problem begin to emerge. The more rules, the tinier the rules, the more arbitrary they are, the better. It's like throwing a handful of fine graphite dust on a piece of paper to see where the hidden indentations are. It lets you see the words that were written on the piece of paper above it that's now been taken away and hidden. The graphite's not important. It's just the means of revealing the indentations. So you see, astrology's nothing to do with astronomy. It's just to do with people thinking about people.”

  6. I think it's probably the case that, as others have said, these are "experience" games for people who want to play in a big, rich environment with lots of stuff going on. I'm not sure there's anything in VQ or HiS from a quality of play standpoint that isn't in TI3 or EiA or TNW or whatever, I just think there's an itch there to be scratched and people who want that experience (dense multiplayer wargame) are willing to be pretty forgiving about the strategic/tactical deficiencies of the games because they enjoy the big picture and the narrative of the game so much. If I had a LOT more time for gaming, I can see myself wanting to play this sort of game occasionally for the same reasons.

  7. I'm in the process of reading the designer notes for Here I Stand before packing the game off, having just sold it, and in the first line the author mentions he was mostly an RPG player. Your concluding paragraph makes sense in that context (although its true for *many* gamers anyways...). He also seems to have been mostly inspired by two flawed games, A Might Fortress and Napoleonic Wars. I was deeply disappointed in Arkham Horror, so I'm confident I would probably have been disappointed with HiS/VQ as well in the sense you mention, being far too concerned with the proper balance and construction of a games mechanics. I had a dream of trying to enjoy this game, but as the burden of the rule-reading would fall on me, and I realized how dispiriting this was given that there was no real indication that a classic was in the making here, and decided someone else should have my copy.

    I hope that these attempts spur interest in a further iteration though, so I'm glad they took that step at least.