Session Report is a monthly series that explores the intersection of narrative and broader themes of game design by focusing on a specific tabletop game each month.
This was born out of misunderstanding.
One of the unspoken pleasures of the board game hobby is the ritual of opening. You’ve grown familiar with the game’s exterior packaging, and you may even have perused the rules online, but that doesn’t diminish the sense of discovery when you tear off the shrinkwrap and slide the upper lid up and off, revealing the stacks of chipboard, the plastic-wrapped bundles of cards, the intricate and/or lazy box insert. Then comes the Zen-like process of punching out chits, counting cards, and sorting this new ludosphere into individual plastic baggies. I appreciate most things on a conceptual level, but this is one physical process I can get lost in.
In a relatively short time, I’ve fallen in love with the small publisher Victory Point Games. While their erstwhile peers have expanded shop, VPG holds tightly to the role of a small publisher. Their games come in plastic baggies–no exterior packaging whatsoever–with folded poster-paper in lieu of a board and the worlds saddest, tiniest die. Well, that was the old VPG; now, they offer deluxe editions of their most popular games. The deluxe version comes with a puzzle-cut board (the multi-layer folding board representing an unnecessary expense) and a sturdy cardboard box that looks like a to-go container.
Calling themselves “The Little Game Company That Could,” VPG produces all of their games on a made-to-order basis. This print-on-demand model allows them to keep many of their games in print even when demand drops off. It also necessitates certain publishing decisions, such as using a laser cutter to shape their cardboard tokens rather than the usual die-cut method, which only makes sense when producing games in large quantities.
I actually prefer the laser-cut chits; they slide out of the chipboard with a smoothness that’s eminently satisfying. The downside is that they slide out of that chipboard covered in black soot, which dilates the normally quick procedure of punching tokens as you pause every few seconds to remove the soot the chits, and from your fingers, before it gets everywhere. (In fact, the most deluxe feature of VPG’s premium offerings is the complimentary “Sir Wipes-a-Lot” napkin included for this very purpose.)
To return to the story: As I was ever-so-delicately separating these pieces from their chipboard cradle, wiping the soot from their tiny cheeks, I noted out loud that “There’s even a token for the Irish Troubles!”
“What does that even mean?” my wife asked. I had to admit that I didn’t know. That was my entire purpose in playing the game: History is the one academic subject that consistently baffles me, and I wanted to see if I could sneak some personal enrichment into my favorite pastime.
(As an example of this defect, when I exclaimed over the Irish Troubles token, I was probably thinking of much more recent Irish Troubles, a 20th-century conflict that, to be fair, had its earliest roots in the English Civil Wars. I googled it later. Even though it lies well beyond the game’s historical scope, this was the first history lesson it taught me. Impressive.)
Reasoning that the answer would be covered somewhere in the rulebook, I flipped around until I landed on this Rosetta Stone of rules writing:
[6.2.7] Irish Troubles: If the Army of Ireland is in its 1 Area (Irish Troubles) in its Region and Activates, instead of Advancing it uses each Activation to Fortify Dublin by one click per Activation. If Dublin is a completely finished (i.e., at its highest 3 Combat Value) Royalist Fortress, then apply Army of Ireland Activations as “Irish Troubles” thus:
The track above the Irish Troubles marker has its Political marker reduced by one (i.e. -1) box (⇩, see 6.6); afterward, move the Irish Troubles marker one Irish Troubles box to the right, looping it from Puritanism to Scotland as required. Thus, it will affect that track the next time there are further Irish Troubles.
Can we just pause to admire the perfection of that excerpt? The frequent capitalization and italicization unwittingly calls to mind the writing conventions of the period, while the content weaves seamlessly between the bulleted overspecificity of a legal document, evocative abstraction, and a hint of noble delicacy (“if there are further Irish Troubles” sounding like a phrase that might circulate among the landed English gentry). There’s even an element of Danielewski-esque color coding. It perfectly encompasses everything I love and loathe about the invisible art of the rulebook.
being an account of everything I’ve learned about the failed Civil War in England
King Charles’ attempts to impose a Book of Common Prayer on Scotland has been met with armed resistance. To raise the funds necessary to mount a defense, Charles is forced to summon Parliament. Their first act was to express their distaste for Charles’ rule. As Scotland marches on Edinburgh, Parliament rises to eminence, assuming a central role in national politics.
Charles signs the Treaty of Ripon. A strengthened Scotland captures Edinburgh, and the Parliamentary Committee of Safety infuses the Parliamentarians with zeal, and they rail against Charles’ papist policies.
The House of Commons passes a resolution in reaction to Archbishop Laud’s religious reforms, which angers Scottish Covenanters. John Pym reveals a Royalist conspiracy by the Earl of Strafford against the Long Parliament. The Monarchy jostles Parliament from its political centrality, but Parliament pushes back–hard.
The Irish Rebellion of 1641 begins. Despite a dip in public support from London, Parliament champions Puritan theology, connecting the Catholicism of the Irish Army with that of the King’s wife.
Allow me to make one thing clear: I normally can’t stand this style of rules presentation, the kind that reads like a patent application, the kind that goes so far as to define the terms “draw” and “discard.” But I do recognize its utility.
I plan to devote a later Session Report to the subject of theme–by which I mean all aspects of setting, character, visuals and story that fall outside of pure mechanics–in relation to rules comprehension. Theme pulls double duty in tabletop games. Not only does it help immerse the players in an emergent narrative, giving the mechanical outcomes of a die roll or card pull dramatic tension-by-association, it also serves as a critical mnemonic for internalizing the game’s rules.
If we think of memory and understanding as functioning within a system of schemata, it becomes much easier to grok the do’s and don’ts of a new game by fitting it within an existing schema or framework. Give the player an easily recognizable bundle of tropes–a zombie apocalypse, swords ‘n’ sorcery fantasy, free market capitalism–and you’ve got a pre-constructed framework of parallel concepts. All the player needs to do, at that point, is figure out which game actions correspond to which thematic elements within the schema. Even the rules that break from convention–oh, so drinking potions doesn’t replenish health?–are more easily remembered for their contrast than if they were to be considered in a vacuum.
As mentioned above, I had no schema for the English Civil Wars, the subject matter of Cruel Necessity. The game had the unenviable task of teaching me its mechanics and the history that inspired them, simultaneously. For the most part, though, it handles this job with aplomb. (One exception: the game instructs me to “Set aside the two alternate Scotland Armies with the pictures of King Charles and King Charles II” during setup. Okay, I see two long-haired brooding dudes. Which one is which?)
This schema theory is why highly organized rulebooks (which are actually reference books) with numbered headings and subheadings and sub-subheadings don’t usually work for me. The structure of the rulebook is attempting to impose its own schema on my brain, which just ends up baffling my attempts to line it up with my existing schemata. The one significant advantage these books offer is the ability to precisely cross-reference different sections of the book to produce a not-necessarily-linear cognitive map. Rule [10.2] points forward to [11.0], which branches into [11.1] and [11.2], the latter of which refers back to [5.0] (which in turn references [11.2]; the connection works both ways). For the purposes of learning a game, this method simply works. It is essentially a program, a score, a series of instructions connected by logic gates that guide the reader through any possible permutation of gameplay scenarios. For my first game, that’s how I approached the book, learning the specifics of each procedure only when they applied.
If you are going to organize your rulebook like a chunk of code, though, it’s doubly important that you give the reader some narrative snare that puts these rules into context. Again, Cruel Necessity delivers. Peppered throughout the rules manual are grey boxes of various sizes, some taking up nearly an entire page. These boxes label their contents as supplementary; they contain no rules text, and can be safely ignored. Instead, these boxes allow the designer of the game to speak directly to the reader, “to explain an idea or concept that is not, itself, a Rule or a Case.” Here’s an example that transforms a troublesome rules exception (when victorious, the Cavalry unit representing Cromwell does not go directly to the Victory! box; instead, it flips over to its +3 Strength side and augments the strength of the nearest Infantry) into an easy-to-remember dramatic element:
Historical Note: In the battles of this era, victorious cavalry units typically abandoned the fighting to charge forward and loot the enemy’s camp, becoming an undisciplined rabble in the process – or pursued the enemy cavalry away from the battlefield. In either case, their part on the battlefield was over.
But not Cromwell’s cavalry. Once victorious on a wing of the battle line, they would turn inward and support the infantry units on their flank which would repeatedly lead to decisive results.
(By the way, Cromwell must have been some kind of badass, because it’s pretty much impossible to win a battle without him. Seriously. Playing through the events in historical order, I didn’t get access to Cromwell’s Cavalry until the Battle of Marston Moor, which also happened to be the only conflict that turned in my favor.)
Elsewhere, the grey text explains the historical relevance pushing the Parliament marker up a track–I mean, Imposing Parliamentary Theology. This also serves as a nice overview of the war itself:
The Reformation that split Catholics from Protestants would result in first dozens and then hundreds of Protestant sects. Puritans (or the “Godly,” as they called themselves) were part of this splintering. Oliver Cromwell and many prominent members of the rebellious “Long” Parliament were Puritans. Fears of “Creeping Catholicism” – the King’s wife was a practicing Catholic and Charles’ choice of Archbishop Laud – lit the fires of religious reform and intolerance. Attempts to promote Puritanism were just as important to the English Civil Wars as were attempts to promote Parliamentary democracy.
We also learn that
strong support from Scotland means striking a balance between stalling Scotland’s desire to bring Presbyterianism to England and your need for their military help in Ireland and England,
which explains a lot, actually; for a supposed ally, Scotland never seems to actually be helping me, at least during the First Civil War.
Even text outside of these boxes contains snippets of tone-setting historical flavor. Most Actions available to the player require a die roll, often with lower than 50% chance of success. “Thus, no Action is ever certain until God has His say.”
Or, to cite one of the manual’s authentically Puritanical attempts at humor, “Put your faith in God and keep your dice dry.”
King Charles rejects John Pym’s 204 points of objection, but the Grand Remonstrance nevertheless strengthens Parliament both politically and spiritually. Parliament responds to the Root and Branch Petition to remove the “roots and branches” of episcopacy from England.
King Charles attempts to arrest Parliament’s worst troublemakers on charges of treason while the war in Ireland stirs up anti-Puritan sympathies in England.
Parliament seizes control of the county militias. Although the war has not officially begun, they now have some form of defense against the Royalist troops. The Irish Army is pushed back to Ulster.
Scottish and Irish armies once again encroach on England’s borders, and the Royalists capture Hull. To gain the support of Scottish Covenanters, Parliament aligns the Church of England with Scottish Presbyterianism. They regain control of Hull and push back the Irish and Scottish forces.
King Charles raises the Royal Standard, declaring war on Parliament. Parliament responds instantly by laying siege to the Royalist stronghold in Oxford, but the attempt is unsuccessful.
Reading rulebooks is never fun. Well, that’s not true; some designers, like Vlaada Chvatil, lace their rulebooks with such sharp wit that they become moderately fun reads in and of themselves. Other games twist your mind with their cleverness; just hearing about them brings joy. But learning the rules to a game will never be as fun as actually playing it. Like the removal of King Charles’ head from his body, it will always be a cruel necessity.
Because reading rules is such an onerous but necessary task, a great publisher ensures that the players will only need to do it once. Unless the game is elevator-pitch simple, this means making the rules accessible to players during actual play. It’s all about ergonomics: Nothing breaks immersion faster than digging the rulebook out of the box and flipping back and forth, searching for that one rule you’re sure you read, though maybe it was for a different game….
Give us aid. Give us a player aid. For most games, the front and back of a single card should suffice. Describe the status conditions or resource types on the back cover of the rules. Many European games develop systems of logograms, making the game components themselves language independent. A smart move, considering the linguistic diversity of Europe; you can print Italian, French, German and English versions of the game without changing anything but the rulebook (or just go quadrilingual on that and produce a single edition that can be sold anywhere in the civilized world). There’s a hidden benefit to these logographic systems, though: they act as a visual shorthand, condensing a small paragraph of rules text into three small, easy-to-differentiate symbols. German designer Stefan Feld is the master of exploiting this shorthand, translating the rulebook’s entire contents directly onto the game components they describe.
Aside from The Little Game Company That Could, Victory Point Games has another motto, “The Gameplay’s the Thing,” and their aesthetically poor but functionally rich products prove this motto time and time again. Let’s take Cruel Necessity. Its board…I mean, the three pieces of folded poster paper that serve as its board…there’s some pleasant design here, to be sure, but there are also chunks of rules text smeared all over the place. There are colored dots and circles that demonstrate the starting positions of all the tokens and sliders. Certain “spaces” on the board are just text-filled rectangles reminding you exactly what happens when a token enters that space. A rash of blue and red triangles is used to calculate the final score. The Battle Display Board devotes 1/6 of its total space to a breakdown of the Tactical Battle procedures. No, it isn’t pretty. But to a confused first-time player, it’s downright beautiful.
As mentioned above, there is some degree of aesthetic design here. A rough map of the U.K. gives shape to the abstracted campaigns for control over key cities in England and its neighboring landmasses. VPG even provides historically accurate spaces to house the “Deviltry” tokens, should you desire to know where these confounding events actually occurred; this is an optional rule, since their position on the map has no gameplay function. The Political Track (as the rules point out, “There is more to Cruel Necessity than mere ‘Kings and Battles'”) makes it impossible to forget Cruel Necessity‘s theme–ornate letters demarcate its two halves as Godly Rule and Republicanism (i.e. the good guys) and The Forces of Opposition and Despair (i.e. the bad guys).
These historically evocative labels notwithstanding, the political tracks are a confusion of numbers, circles, and colored arrows, the game board equivalent of referring the player to sub-case [6.6.2]. And how exactly do we influence those political forces? By winning decisive battles and issuing proclamations? Well, actually, there’s a bit of that, but the primary method of “Engaging in Politics” is to roll a die, trying to hit a value higher than the one printed on the square you are trying to push the political marker into. The constant pressures from all sides and dearth of available actions give this activity dramatic tension, just not a narrative tension.
But here’s the most important thing: throughout all of this, the game creator’s enthusiasm for his historical subject is both evident and contagious. After learning to play the game, I was anxious to start learning from it.
The Battle of Edgehill was the first full-scale conflict of the English Civil War. Cavaliers and Parliamentarians appear in evenly matched bands levied from the local population, but Royalist cavalry fights “Duc d’Enghien Style.” Though the battle ends in a draw, Parliament loses command of the London Trained Bands, their only reliable asset. The Army of the North retakes Hull while Parliament fortifies London and Bristol.
The Battle of Turnham Green. Although it ends in another draw, Parliamentary forces defeat Lord Hopton’s Foot so decisively that they are eliminated from future battles. Charles fortifies Oxford, and pissed off Clubmen rise to meet his armies in Nottingham. Parliament pushes against the North Army in an attempt to retake Hull.
The Battle of Braddock Down ends in a loss for Parliament. (A pattern is starting to emerge.)
(I’m going to interrupt my Session Report here to discuss something that, while it did not appear in this particular game, is probably the most important historical lesson I will learn from Cruel Necessity. I’m talking about Prince Rupert’s fearsome Battle Poodle. Bolstering Prince Rupert’s already powerful Cavalry unit, this may be the most frightening card in the Battle Event deck. “Boy was Prince Rupert’s much feared white poodle whom the Royalists adopted as their mascot with the honorary rank of Sergeant-Major-General. Parliamentarians circulated rumors that Boye was a witch’s familiar, an invisible shape-shifter, and even that he was the Devil. Boye died bravely at the Battle of Marston Moor.”)
The Battle of Adwalton Moor. Prince Rupert takes Bristol. The Royalists now control all English cities of importance London, which is now under siege from the Army of the North.
You may have noticed a few anachronisms in my prior account, but at this point, the tale veers sharply away from the path of history. With zeal waning, Parliament spends the next few months clinging desperately to London, unable to hold off Charles’ forces for more than a brief respite. At the Battle of Marston Moor, despite a decisive victory at the hands of Cromwell, Royalist forces finally claim London.
My shameful performance–literally the worst outcome you can achieve in the game–earns me the King Charles Crushes Parliament ending:
“The Stuart Dynasty lasts for another 150 years until swept away by the English Revolution of 1795. A lack of history with English democratic and republican institutions means that the Revolution of ’95 turns despotic after six years of internal struggle.”