Transcript of our podcast from 2 October 2007

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The Future of Gaming Part II: The Peleponnesian War Shuffle

by Moritz Eggert

I want to continue my little series of possibly novel game ideas with this mysteriously titled segment.

One of the main internal problems of many games that I want to address here is the "gang up on the leader" syndrome. There are games that I actually try to play badly to mediocre on purpose until the last rounds, so I avoid the spotlight of being the guy whose victory point cube is ahead of the track or who is controlling the most areas on the board. 2nd place becomes better than 1st place while the game lasts. This is only bad in games in which the actions of other players can directly influence your fate. Usual group dynamics are at work - if 3 of 4 people see you as the guy who is going to win they will all style their actions in a way that they hurt you. Which usually means you don't win, in the end, no matter how hard you try.

I always find it slightly unsatisfying to play bad, to stay away from the spotlight. Many newer Euro Games try to avoid this problem by introducing ever more complicated final scorings in the end round. Martin Wallace usually tries to make the end game scoring so complicated that it is difficult to judge during a game who will win. But this is of course a kind of camouflage tactic, and an experienced player will still see clearly who is leading the pack.

To show you how frustrating this can be sometimes just imagine a sports event that would work like this - imagine a fast runner who is punished because he is leading, imagine a soccer game in which your opponent gets one additional field player for every goal you make. Imagine a baseball league in which the best team suddenly has to play twice as many games as the others. Multiplayer games dynamics are often not about fairplay, and kingmaking is also often rearing it's ugly head. So how to avoid this?

Another problem is with games that are about territorial control, and that make the player who has the most territory more and more powerful. Think of two simple examples: "Risk" or "Monopoly", which share a common trait - the more countries or streets you own, the more armies/money you get, so the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Very often these games are decided in the first few turns, and then it's quite boring for the players who are left behind, because their fate is already sealed.

In the 80's Avalon Hill had a sub company called "Victory Games" that produced some interesting and very often experimental games. One of the lesser known efforts is the game "The Peleponnesian War", a very interesting simulation of the conflict Athens against Sparta that is actually quite playable and not too cumbersome to play. The game is a relatively standard wargame, with the exception of it being designed mainly for solo play.

"The Peleponnesian War" uses the usual Auto-movement mechanics for making your opponent act interestingly in solitaire play. But these kind of mechanics always have their limits, and this was also felt by the game designer. So he introduced a very novel mechanic: at the end of each turn you rolled a die with modifiers that depend on your success of playing a certain side, Athens or Sparta. If you rolled beyond a certain number you would actually - change sides! Yes, you heard right: In this game it could happen that you as Athens would deal a crushing blow to the Spartan side, and then, schizophrenically, would find yourself in the shoes of the Spartan next round, desperately trying to limit the damage that you yourself inflicted... on yourself!

In the end your success would be judged how well you played each side during your various takeovers, not by actual board position at game's end.

This was of course a rather mind-boggling concept, and as far as I know it was never used again in a solo game, but I find something interesting about that mechanic, as it would solve the "gang up on the leader" and the "hopeless board position" problem in a new and unusual way.

What would happen if we used it in a multiplayer game?

Imagine a game like this: After each round there would be a mechanic that determined through the actual game play how sides are switched. The poor become the rich, the rich become the poor. Of course this could be a bit more elaborate like I describe, but basically the game system should strive for some kind of equilibrium. So you would neither be in an endless top position and being envied by all other players nor would you spend your time boredly looking at a dwindling set of resources. Think of it like a more fluid "Britannia" system - in "Britannia" players act out historical invasions of Britain controlling nations of different size, and each player has his or her moment in glory with a powerful force as well as the task of controlling small and meek nations. But "Britannia" is highly scripted as a game, whereas I envision a game that is more fluid. "History of the World" by the Ragnar Brothers comes close, but here there is a victory track that will influence how empires will be dealt out. My visionary future game has a fluid, ever changing structure and no VP track, and only in the last turn it will be decided who controls the actual winning side, up to then there would be constant shuffling around of positions, posing ever new challenges.

So, dear game designers, I ask for a game with this principle, create the "Peleponnesian War Shuffle" game, because there isn't one yet!

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2007, Westpark Gamers