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.
In one’s autumn years, one’s thoughts naturally turn to reminiscences, and one is inclined to take measure of one’s past accomplishments. Engaging in exactly this pursuit, I made a most unpleasant realization: I have utterly wasted my time upon this Earth.
True, I have accumulated a not insignificant sum of money, and true, I have lived both piously and fashionably, to the best of my ability to reconcile the two, but what do I actually have to show for it? All of my monuments are but the spinnings of the smallest spider in the smallest corner of my library, so meticulously created and so easily swept aside .
That’s when the thought struck me. To take a wife! To start a family! A true and lasting legacy, an estate that would last a hundred years! I set to work at once. The first is to make the right acquaintances–it is no longer just about which salons one attends; I must seek out friends whose daughters, or sisters, or cousins are yet unmarried. The next step, of course, is to wed, and in short order, following the usual order of events, a child shall be produced. But is one child enough? Of course not! What if it should prove sickly, or cowardly, or horse-faced, or a girl? Three heirs should be sufficient to ensure the continuation of the family line. But then there are the children’s marriages to think about, and the children’s children’s, and so forth. For did God not command, “Be fruitful, and multiply upon the Earth, and subdue it”?
Every player begins Legacy: The Testament of Duke de Crecy with a secret patron who helps give shape to the player’s strategy by bestowing Honor for fulfilling certain objectives by the end of the game. Jean-Jacques Rousseau wants your family to experience a wide variety of occupations, although he has a special preference for artists; Benjamin Franklin rewards you for forming international alliances through marriage; and Madame de Pompadour simply wants your family to breed like rabbits.
My family’s patron is John Paul Jones, the famed American naval officer. Jones rewards patriotism and nobility–he wants me to restrict my matches, wherever possible, to the French noble class, and to elevate ourselves even further through the acquisition of titles.
The first generation in Legacy is disarmingly brief–you’re not exactly young. Almost universally, the first action one takes is to marry, assuming one finds a suitable, well, suitor among one’s friends and relations. Searching through my hand of Friend cards (representing the family’s social circle), I find the perfect candidate: Roger, a ship owner and French nobleman. Not only will he please my patron, he will also give my family a healthy head start on Income and Prestige, earning us honor and wealth over the coming generations.
Paying 6 gold for the dowry (marrying into nobility isn’t cheap), I align Roger to my female head of the family, and the union immediately produces a child, a boy who will grow up to be a bit of a Don Juan. I’m now nearly out of money, but I also know that George, the American dignitary’s son, is in town; his political connections could be very useful in future generations. I spend 1 of my last 2 gold to throw a small fête, making sure George receives an invitation. I then receive my annual allowance of 3 gold, drawing from the combined wealth of Roger’s family and my own, and the next round begins–the last of this generation.
I started the game with a light blue “additional action” marker, allowing me to visit a fertility doctor without spending one of my normal two per-round actions (this represents my family’s connections to Madame du Coudray, midwife to the royal court). If I don’t use it now, I’ll lose it at the end of the generation as new bonds form and social obligations are forgotten. Might as well; 2 gold allows me to have 2 children in rapid succession, another boy and one girl. However, I do lose a friend over the arrangement. For my final acts of the generation, I arrange a marriage between my eldest son (the Don Juan) and Sophie, the season’s hottest debutante, receiving 3 gold for the dowry; I use these funds to align my only daughter with George, the American.
Like all pursuits, the board gaming hobby necessitates the nurturing of a specialized vocabulary. When I talk about a game’s weight, I’m employing a widely understood analogy. Although the precise meaning of this term is a subject of frequent debate, most gamers understand that I am referring not to the game’s physical heft, but to the metaphorical pressures it exerts upon the brain, either through a demanding set of rules, a complex decision tree, or even a generally serious tone. A heavier game might induce analysis paralysis, the tendency inherent within all players, but more pronounced in some, to spend a socially unacceptable amount of time puzzling over or “mathing out” the options in front of me and their arborescent consequences. Of course, the allowances given for analysis paralysis might change depending on whether one is playing an abstract or a dungeon crawl, a perfect information game or a dice-fest.
Much of gaming terminology orbits around one central dichotomy: theme versus mechanics. Mechanics encompass the rules of the game, written or implied. The theme is the game’s subject matter, but the term is more all-encompassing here than in its literary sense. The subject, setting, narrative, flavor text (another specialized term), and even art style all contribute to its theme. Themes can be pasted on, suggesting that they have little or nothing to do with the mechanics, but the best games establish a reciprocal relationship between mechanics and theme, each existing in service of the other.
Compared to video games, board games encompass a refreshingly wide range of themes–almost as many as books, in fact. Perennial favorites include Cthulhu, castle building in the middle ages, swords ‘n’ sorcery fantasy, trading goods in the Mediterranean, mobsters, historical conflicts, and auto racing. Beyond the cliches, though, are hundreds of unique themes, from the history of Oxford University to the rise of the vernacular.
Legacy: The Testament of Duke de Crecy, conceived by Dutch-Canadian game designer Michiel Hendricks and published by Portal Games, focuses on a universal but often understated theme: reproduction. Specifically, the game meditates (as does much of literature) on man’s endeavor to leave a lasting mark upon his world.
A “handwritten” (and typo-ridden) slip of parchment paper hides between the folds of the game’s rules manual, a personal note to the players from the fictionalized French nobleman himself, the Duke de Crécy:
In these last moments of my life my thoughts return to the powerful houses, the great leaders and noble gentlefolk of France that Fate has placed on my path. What mark have I left on the ever spinning wheels of history? Wath is my legacy? You have probably not even heard of the noble house de Crecy, about the history we have made, and the glorious moments we have had. My name has never managed to rise above the vast ocean of medicrity.
After a lot more on this theme, the Duke finally gets to the point. Referring, most likely, to the rumblings of revolution and the rise of the bourgeoisie, de Crecy warns:
Prepare yourself and your family for the forthcoming storms. … Take care to marry your sons to the daughters of powerful men, and give your daughters to those, who excel in greatness. Fight for the laurel wreaths and honors to be bestowed on your grandchildren and do not let anyone outrun them in this race. … Have palaces and mansions erected to be celebrations of the power of your name for generations to come. Be wise when investing your wealth, and your grandchildren will still sip the sweet nectar of profit when you have left this world for good yourself. Mind those words, as written in this, the last will of the Duke de Crecy. Leave a great legacy to the world: the power of a house that will grow in strength with each new century.
A few things happen at the beginning of a generation: First, the deeds of the current generation are evaluated, and the player receives Honor based on her Prestige and the current generation’s fecundity (1 point for each child born). Then, the children come of age, consummating any marriages arranged by their parents or grandparents. The next generation then officially begins their own search for advantageous matches or other marks of nobility.
As one’s family grows, the generations get progressively longer and more complicated, so I’ll simply provide a highlights reel here. I begin the generation by undertaking a Mission–these represent your family’s political machinations. I am to “Open a new art gallery displaying works of Fragonard and Boucher.” I can achieve this by establishing connections with artists–unfortunately, this does not mesh well with my overall goal of marrying into nobility, but it will give me a decent second option. I’m suffering an unfortunate drought of female social relations, forcing me to marry my youngest son to Angelique, a common shopkeeper–at least she has good birthing hips. Despite this, she suffers a complication at birth, losing the child. My eldest son earns the title of Marquis, boosting our family’s income and prestige, and before you know it, another generation has ended.
Legacy‘s theme-mechanics matrix is inextricably bound to the social values of the early 18th century European noble class. The available actions, their cost-reward attributes, and the mechanical representations of the myriad archetypes encompassed by the 75-card “Friend” deck (from which you must select suitable matches for yourself and your descendants) all reflect, not reality, but reality as perceived by the noblemen and -women the players are meant to portray.
Consequently, initiating a Venture or marrying a successful craftsman may well provide a lasting income for generations to come, but it also loses you Honor points (the ultimate goal of the game) because, well, earning a living is just so terribly gauche, n’est-ce pas? Consulting a urologist to ensure the gender of your offspring will likewise tarnish your family’s reputation, while acquiring a title or mansion will cost you both money and friends, jealousy being a universal constant. Other common actions include throwing balls, thereby widening your social circle; engaging in politics; and, in dire straits, asking friends for money.
And while each Friend card, encompassing a mix of 10 nationalities and 5 occupations, has its own unique attributes, you can generally expect certain costs and advantages to arise from a marriage depending on the sex of the prospective spouse. Women most often come with a dowry and social connections, while marrying a man can represent an intimidating expense but pay for itself over time, bringing your family lasting income and prestige.
Legacy‘s dual rhythm makes a more subtle contribution to its theme. The game takes place across three generations, each of which is subdivided into a number of rounds. Some effects, like receiving money based on your family’s Income, occur at the end of every round, which others only pay off at the end of a generation. The big one of these is Prestige, a sort of Honor-generating income stream. Over the course of a single generation, your Prestige may go up or down, but it’s only evaluated once, when the next generation comes of age.
Generation 3 is when it all comes to a head, when alliances are at their most crucial. After this generation, the head of the family–your avatar in the game–will die, leaving their legacy in the hands of their children and grandchildren.
George’s daughter marries Victor, the Finance Minister’s son, who is next in line for the title of King’s Advisor. Angelique redeems herself by marrying her daughter to Constant, a distant relative of the king and an aspiring (but hopelessly bad) artist. He is, however, sterile, so the union produces no children. Sophie’s son, a spoiled brat, scandalizes the entire family by eloping with a courtesan (even his father has the good sense to keep his wife and his mistresses separate). Angelique’s other child, a son, marries Pauline, a newspaper editor–at least she is French. Finally, George’s remaining son marries Elena, a Russian art collector, giving me the connections I need to establish my art gallery; and Pauline visits a fertility doctor, birthing another two girls just in time for them to witness their great-grandmother’s funeral.
As a footnote to this tale, I’d like to address one element of Legacy‘s theming that has elicited some minor controversy. During the “have children” action (or immediately after marrying), the player draws a random child card. It may be a boy or girl; you’ll never know until it comes out. There are even a few specialized offspring sprinkled into the deck–a girl with a pretty smile has better luck socializing, while a brave boy immediately earns your family a little Honor. However, occasionally while drawing from the Child deck, you’ll encounter a Complication at Birth and must make a choice: lose the mother, or lose the child.
For anybody who has dealt with this kind of tragedy in real life, this card can be triggering, and for that reason, some gamers felt that it was not appropriate to include in the game. Others maintain that it is merely a fact of life, and one that was much more prevalent before the advent of modern medicine–it’s a small but important part of establishing the game’s setting. I personally appreciate the inclusion of this serious topic in an otherwise fairly lighthearted game, but I don’t feel it accurately conveys the gravity of such a decision. Mechanically speaking, it’s almost always the right decision to lose the mother–a male heir can always remarry, and will even receive a second dowry for doing so, while maximizing your offspring per generation is the single most important consideration in the game. However, this is a purely mechanical consideration; faced with this decision in real life, I would choose the other option without hesitation.
The question, then: Is this a failure in theming? Or does encouraging the player to choose the option that is most advantageous to the family as a whole, with no consideration of emotional attachments, allow the player to more accurately enter the mindset of 18th-century French nobility? I genuinely can’t decide.