Friday, July 19, 2019

Three development paths for Britannia -like games

On the occasion of the kickstarter (closes Aug 1) for a reissue of my game Britannia but with plastic figures and other improvements in the interface but no changes in the rules, along with a two player newly-designed Duel Britannia that takes me 65 to 75 minutes to play, I had some thoughts about the different ways the development has gone for Britannia -like games

Britannia was originally published in 1986 by HP Gibsons in the United Kingdom. It was picked up by Avalon Hill and published in 1987. (I had submitted it to Avalon Hill a few years before, but they told me that games of that era didn’t sell. Evidently Gibsons proved to them that it could sell.)

To make a long story short, I was not participating in the game hobby at this time, I was playing Dungeons & Dragons and making additions for Dungeons & Dragons to use with my friends, period. When I received a couple copies of Britannia from Gibsons I opened the box, looked at the contents, said “that’s nice” and did not actually see a published version of the game played until 2004.

In all that time some people liked the Britannia game system and adapted it to other situations. I think the first was the Avalon Hill Maharajah, which came close to being a slavish copy except that it was set in India. So it continued the simplicity but considerable length of the parent game. This is the first branch of Britannia development. Other semi-commercial games such as the Dragon and the Pearl and Rus followed the same path. I’ve designed Normannia originally in this development path. I designed my prototype Caledonia as a somewhat cutdown version of Britannia, but I think I’m going to reduce it to the small development path.

But with Hispania we saw another branch of development, the bigger and more complex game. Where Britannia has about 200 pieces, games in this branch have over 500; where Britannia has armies and cavalry and leaders, this kind of game adds elite units and sometimes fleets. More recently, Italia, by the same designer, continued this branch, and in the past year we have Invasions (of Europe) by French designer Philippe Thibault. He has ready a successor chronologically to that game as well. These games violate my philosophy of design, which relies on simpler games where the players can play the other players. Or as Albert Einstein put it, “Everything should be as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Or at least so I thought at the time, though I’ve since found that I can make games much simpler than Britannia.

My own prototypes “MegaBrit” and Dark Ages and Helennia, use a larger form though not with as many pieces. More recently a Spanish designer designed Corsica, with more than 500 pieces, which is scheduled to be published probably next year.

Of course, I was designing Britannia in the early 1980s, when long games were much more acceptable than today. (I made an all-of-Europe prototype during that period but the one time we played it we took 12 hours, so I set it aside and forgot it until I found the prototype 30 years later.) When I heard from the Mayfair guys at a convention that they were working on a “broad market” version of Catan (later published as Catan Junior) I said to myself, I ought to try doing that for Britannia. After quite a few years I ended up with Conquer Britannia which has just 12 nations and six turns and has been played in as little as 84 minutes. This is the third path, to make the game much simpler and smaller. (This requires a new board; in the late 2000s I designed a version of Britannia to play on the original board in a couple hours, as an expansion, but Fantasyflightgames who had published the Second Edition were not interested in the expansions.) There are something like 18 to 20 land areas on the Conquer board compared with 37 on the original board.

Having more or less perfected this method I have gone on to make prototypes for Frankia (but diceless), Barbaria (Europe from 410 to 1250 in six turns, has been played in 1:40), Rule Britannia (diceless), and have others in mind. And of course, when I got the assignment to design a two player 60 to 90 minute version of Britannia itself, which became Duel Britannia.

Why would anyone make these massive games like Hispania and Invasions? I suppose because they can; but I also suspect that the smaller the game is, the harder it is to balance. By including lots of units and lots of everything you have a game that’s easier to balance. I think that’s probably a general rule for asymmetric games.

From a marketing point of view the smaller game path makes much more sense for modern gamers, many of whom say they can’t handle even a three-hour game (although you can see many of those same people play a three-hour game if they’re enjoying it and if it has sufficient substance). Yet Philippe Thibault’s kickstarter for Invasions got 992 backers. (I suspect the French are more willing to play those old 80 style games than Americans are.)

1 comment:

Philippe Thibaut said...

I wholeheartedly agree that size does matter. At some point European players also buy games that are big more or less like a collection item, and won't find much time to play it (or will accept to split the play over multiple weekends)

Philippe Thibaut