The ground trembles. The Kraken wakes. Titan is to be reprinted.
And what seems to be the majority response to the idea that one of the very best games of the eighties is to see the light of day again? Complaints about it player elimination.
Discussion of player elimination is an ongoing bugbear for me because it seems to be missing a very fundamental point. We'll return to what that point is in a little while but we'll begin by reviewing the complaints that are usually raised against player elimination in games.
The basis of the argument against is that elimination is bad in longer games because it means some players have to leave the game early, spoiling the game session for them. I have mixed feelings about this particular argument not least because there are deeper facets that don't usually get discussed. Consider one of the grossest offenders in the player elimination league - Risk. During discussion of elimination I heard one guy quote an example of a 7-hour risk game they once played in which two players were put out early because both decided to scrap for Australia on the first turn. The exact same thing has happened to me once, although my game didn't drag on quite so long because we were playing with the mission rules.
The key word in the above paragraph is once.
Think about it. This is *Risk* we're talking about here, no Go or Chess or some similar ancient game with vast depths of subtle strategy. Any gamer worth their salt who has played Risk will have spotted that the attacker has a considerable advantage given equal numbers of troops. If it looks like this sort of situation is shaping up during your initial deployment then for Gods sake, if you're not going to be going before your opponent, don't get sucked into it! If you do happen do get into this position, then it's an error you are unlikely to repeat. I have an excuse for my behaviour: I was horribly drunk at the time.
The point is that many player elimination games have this sort of built-in policing - early aggression will often damage you as much as your victim, leaving your ripe for the picking by other players. Titan has it - because early stacks tend to be the same sort of size and power, an early attack will often leave you too weak to compete with other players in spite of the points reward. Getting eliminated early in this sort of game is far more often a consequence of bad play (or inebriation) than randomness. Isn't that one of the things Eurogamers often complain about in AT games? That they don't sufficiently punish bad play? Well, I beg to differ.
I'll admit that any elimination games that don't come with some sort of mechanism for limiting the number of early exits are definitely a bad thing. But here's the rub - I can't actually think of any that don't.
So we're left with long-running games which have elimination during the later stages. I personally see this as much less of a problem. If I get kicked out of a 4 hour game after 3 hours then I've still had a good game night - I can watch the game, play on the computer, maybe play a Euro-filler against some other knocked-out players, go home early or - god forbid - actually hang around and indulge myself in some good old fashioned socialising. But lets run with this for a moment and suggest that a game player might not want to do any of those things, does that suddenly make player elimination undesirable?
Well no. It adds spice to the game. What sort of feeble taunting are you going to be able to deliver to your opponents when you've all finished simultaneously within 5 victory points of one another? What kind of exhilaration can you feel when your only option for taking revenge on the guy whose moves have been bugging you all game is to force him to ship his coffee instead of selling it (I hate exclusive examples, so for the uninitiated, the latter is a Puerto Rico reference)? How much greater is your stake in, and attachment to, success in the game when you face the knowledge the doing badly is going to result in an early and ignominious exit? In short, what sort of memorable game night are you going to have unless there's a player elimination game on the table?
Back in the days when a lot of the games around did revolve around random dice rolls I can see how there could be a complaint of elimination. If you've just sat out 2 hours of a five hour game purely because you couldn't roll enough sixes while you were at the table then yes, sure, I can see why you'd never want to play that game again. But those days are, for the most part, gone. The games that survive (such as Titan) survive for the most part exactly because they weren't games like that - they were games that rewarded good strategy and clever play. I wonder sometimes if all the venom that gets directed at player elimination arises from genuinely shitty experiences older gamers had with badly designed Ameritrash games from the eighties. But it's not the eighties anymore, and of all the lessons that AT designs have learned from the Euro-revolution, the increase the number of important game choices has to be the one that's been most widely accepted.
But lets get back to my opening promise of ratting out a fundamental misconception about player elimination. Take a typical Eurogame - to avoid accusations of bias we'll use an AT favourite, Settlers of Catan. In Settlers no-one can be eliminated - everyone is locked in to playing until the end of the game. What's more you're all racing to ten victory points and everyone starts with two so it's a short course anda close finish is virtually guaranteed. All good stuff, right?
It's all a myth. I can recall playing a game of Settlers in which I was in the lead most of the way through. I was the first player to hit eight points and shortly thereafter it dawned on me that I was completely boxed in - I couldn't build any more roads or settlements and all my settlements had already been upgraded to cities. The only way in which I could get my last two points was to burn resources drawing cards and hoping to get a VP card, but my setup didn't specialise in the necessary resources to make that anything more than an outside chance. I sat through the last half hour of that game knowing I'd lost but having to play on regardless. At the game end it looked close - the winner had ten, of course and I came second with nine (I did get one card) - but the game wasn't remotely competitive after the halfway point and everyone knew it.
This situation is far worse than actually being eliminated from the game. Because the system demand I continue playing I had no choice to get up and do something else, I had to carry on making my futile moves. Worse, I had the potential to spoil things for everyone else by doing the kingmaker thing - biasing the game by picking and choosing who I traded with on what terms and who I put the robber on. That sort of bias (which is common in AT games) isn't too much of a problem in an open game where everyone gets the chance to do it and react accordingly, but in a "closed" Euro it can completely destroy any chance of a meaningful game. I didn't do this - but I could have.
Euro designers are very far from stupid of course, and there are a number of mechanisms employed to combat this problem in other designs. The most common one - and my absolute #1 vote for the laziest, most over-used mechanic in game design ever - is hidden victory points. I feel I should qualify that latter statement by saying that it's not the mechanic itself that's bad but rather the number of times it's been used to cover up problems in what are basically badly designed games. But I digress. By hiding the victory points you stop people being certain that they've fallen badly behind and as a result keep them interested in playing for themselves rather than playing kingmaker.
So what does this achieve? A game in which you can actually be eliminated but you just don't know it. Call me old-fashioned but I thought the idea of covering up and effectively lying to people was generally considered a bad thing.
On consideration, if we're talking about manners, I should probably concede that stealing someone's country, pillaging their resources and slaughtering the populace probably ranks somewhat higher on the impoliteness scale than white lies so maybe AT games can't take the high ground here. But you take my point.
Games are competitive. Elimination is built into the nature of competition. How can you have a game that rewards better players over weaker ones unless at some point in the game those better plays build into a cumulative advantage which eventually becomes overwhelming? All the concepts that have been used to combat this - hidden VPs, low VP targets, exponential build-up to a victory condition, granting weaker players privileges in the early rounds - are just blinds to the fact that all games must, sooner or later, turn into elimination competitions.
So long live Titan. And, paradoxically, long live elimination.
Wednesday, 9 May 2007
The ground trembles. The Kraken wakes. Titan is to be reprinted.