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.