Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Chess and chance in Britannia

In describing Britannia to potential players, I often say it has a chess-like quality. You have to pay attention throughout the game, as losing out on a few points in the first few turns can mean the difference between winning and losing many turns later. It is a game that rewards some planning, though owing to the variability of combat, you also have to react to surprises from the dice as well as from the players.

In chess you can survive going down a pawn early in the game, but if you really screw up and go down a rook or queen, you've had it. Similarly in Britannia, if you make a big error--say, as the Welsh, fighting the Romans to the death instead of submitting--then you can't win the game, and face hours having to deal with that.

While some people play games to enjoy the process, the journey, some play to win, and don't care to play when they feel they cannot win. In chess you can resign (surrender) and play another game, not easy to do gracefully when there are three other players instead of one.

This chess-like quality is quite in contrast to many Euro-style games, where you can more or less foul up throughout the first half or more of the game and still have some chance to win in the end. Insofar as many Euro games are "family games on steroids", this characteristic is to be expected.

The presence of chance, variability, in the combat, takes Britannia away from the chess analogy, thank heaven. (For me, chess is "too much like work".) Whether there's "too much luck" is a matter for disagreement. In my online survey, about 75% of players think the amount of luck is OK, and most of the rest think there should be less. In my prototypes I generally have adopted methods with less chance, some of them diceless though not deterministic. I hardly ever consider using the original combat method in new games. (Then again, I was known to say 30-some years ago "I hate dice games", but then I came onto D&D and designed Britannia and other games that use dice...)

I think expert Brit players would say that bad luck can be managed, as long as there isn't a really long run of bad luck. Less expert players often think the game can revolve around a few rolls. To my mind, most rolls in Britannia are not important out of proportion, unless someone is desperately trying to kill a rival king in the endgame. Dice can be managed in Brit just as they can be managed in D&D. "What?" Yes, in (first edition) D&D you can try to minimize the number of times you MUST get lucky. This is the same as how you ought to manage life, trying to avoid times when you MUST get lucky. So smart people wear seatbelts, some people don't. Smart people exercise, some people don't. Smart people don't smoke, some people do. And so forth.

I have changed the combat methods in prototypes in part because I want to reduce chance, but also because I tend to aim at shorter games with fewer pieces. This means less fighting, and each fight is magnified in importance, so I want to reduce the effects of chance on each fight. I've devised a number of 4-8 turn Britannia scenarios, and it's noticeable how much more important the dice rolls are in these much-shorter games, simply because there are fewer rolls over the course of the game. (I've never quite actually counted, but IIRC there's something like 800 dice rolls in a Brit game.)

Example: players who do lots of one-on-ones with the Romans are taking unnecessary risks, I think--living on borrowed time. I try to avoid it. I think a conservative Roman can still score his 80 by round 3, and have more Roman armies left to defend his holdings. Yeah, "fortune favors the bold", but sometimes you don't have to be bold and can still get the job done.

There are three prominent alternative methods: one uses battle cards to add to the strength of combatants, and each player has an identical deck of 25 cards (five in hand). Over the course of a game, then, the "luck" each player has will be about the same, because they have identical decks. A second method uses "picture dice" (which are really just marked with the equivalent of 4, 5, and 6 when you come down to it), each army rolls two dice, and two hits are required to kill an army. The third method uses a table. One table "evens out" luck quite strongly, another not as much. The first cross-references the number of armies and a die roll, the second uses odds (but all possible odds are listed on the table, so that players don't have to figure out odds--people aren't used to doing division in their heads any more). People like picture dice and cards. Wargamers are more used to tables. All of these methods have been extensively playtested, and all of them work, but accomplish somewhat different objectives and have different expenses (200 cards, for example).

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