Saturday, February 12, 2011

WEEK 6B: The Age of Exploration, 1492 - 1543

Let me start with two admissions: (1) I have only ever played this game solitaire; (2) this past week I opened the box in good faith, looked through the rules, and couldn’t face playing it again. Realizing that the time has come to sell or trade it is one of the benefits of this exercise. The other benefit is thinking about the game and what it represents to me. So read on and find out, already!

When I was young and single I was a committed wargamer—the term now is ‘grognard’, but I rarely use it because it connotes flagons of mead and suchlike. And, like most gamers, when I buy a game, I often rationalize the purchase. So when I used to see a good introductory-level wargame at The Worldhouse, (like Onslaught—D-Day to the Rhine) I would often tell myself, “Go for it! Buy it! You can use it to teach your son how to play wargames!”

This was years before I met my wife, let alone had a child.

When I became a teacher, the rationalization became “you’ll use it in the classroom!” Sometimes I even do. The Age of Exploration (TAoE hereinafter) falls into the category of games bought for the classroom and never used.

Almost exactly five years ago I took a job teaching a class of ‘gifted’ children in Grades 4 through 6 (later in the year, two Grade 3 students were added to my class—but that is definitely another story). The school, Willow Academy (now defunct) ran on a Renzoulli model of enrichment, where the school year was split into separate ‘theme’ periods. One was ‘outer space’, as I recall, another was ‘garbage’, a third was ‘architecture’.

And the last was ‘exploration’.

I wanted a game that would put students in the seat of one of the early European explorers and have them experience the trials and tribulations of setting out for the unknown. I knew about the classic Conquistador but thought it would be too complex for kids that age, even gifted ones. So, since I had already discovered BoardGameGeek, I nosed around until stumbling upon TAoE. It seemed to fit the bill perfectly—right era, right scale, seemed to have good reviews. 

So I ordered a copy—possibly straight from TimJim Games (the publisher), possibly via the BGG marketplace or eBay (the details have gone hazy), and soon enough I got my package (oh the exquisite agony of waiting for something arriving through the mails).

The box itself was a graphic homage to the classic Avalon Hill ‘bookcase format’. I opened the box, set up the game according to the ‘Let’s Play!’ rules introduction included with the game, and...


See how many spaces it takes to circumnavigate the globe!
This was not a game I could use in a junior-level classroom. I didn’t mind that it would take a long time—we had our own dedicated classroom and I could have left everything out from day to day. I also didn’t mind that there was a lot of ‘chrome’ (Eurogamers would call it ‘theme’)—which meant the game had many sub-systems meant to model things like ‘rumours of gold’ and ‘known sea progress’ and ‘outfitting expeditions’. Lots of chrome is good from an educational standpoint, because it immerses students in the facts and situations in a way which is more organic and comfortable than learning them out of a textbook. I figured I could take care of the ‘fiddliness’ by playing the role of ‘Gamemaster’—give the students choices about what, let them roll the dice and pick cards, do the calculations myself, and give them the end result.

No, the problem was that TAoE is a simulation first and a game second. The extensive designer’s notes discuss the tug-of-war he experienced trying to find a balance between making the game historically accurate (which entailed a very high failure rate for expeditions, which in turn led to playtesters becoming frustrated and giving up) and making it an enjoyable game (which would have meant diverging too far from history). The end result is a workable compromise—but not usable by me in that classroom.

For one, like many traditional wargames, one player performs all their actions, followed by the next player, and so on. There is a lot of downtime between player-turns—which would be Death On Wheels with Grade 4, 5, and 6 students who would probably not be able to handle the wait times.

For another, there is almost no player interaction—which is historically accurate enough, but from a gaming standpoint is not as attractive, and again would have been difficult to handle with my students.

Finally, the entire exercise (and it did feel more like exercise than a game when I tried it out for myself) is just about gaining ‘Victory Points’—again, hardly unusual in any game, but it occurred to me that simply calling them ‘Glory’ (as is done in Endeavor) would have been more thematic and historically accurate.

The fact is, I once had far more of a tolerance for “chrome” in a game than I do now. Partially, I know it’s a factor of age; I don’t have the time to digest a huge ruleset, and I don’t have the neuron-power to keep it all in my head to play the game. This is not helped by the fact that many games today (of all sorts) are released with badly-written or badly-organized rules (three words: Field of Fire) and the process of keeping up with all the FAQ’s, BGG rulings, version 3.27’s and suchlike is just too tiring for this old brain.

Not so 'simple'
I am of the John Hill school of game design—put the player in the general’s seat, and design the rules so that he/she doesn’t have to think about the chrome—it’s just been seamless integrated into the world of the game. The comparison between the original Squad Leader and the current ASL Starter Kit is most instructive. In the original designer’s notes, John Hill noted that he didn’t care what was happening to a particular squad, there were only three basic outcomes to any situation: nothing; rout; death. Everything else could be (and was) based on that.

What happened was that Squad Leader became a huge bestseller and spawned several sequels, none of which (after the first) were designed by him. The new design team made the game more ‘realistic’ (egged on by hardcore wargamers in the AH community of playtesters); there were more and more rules, more tables, more everything—but in the process the simple elegance of “nothing; rout; death” got buried. In their own separate ways Memoir ’44, Tide of Iron, and Combat Commander (in increasing order of complexity) have tried to recapture the elegance of the original Squad Leader.

BUT, back to our game. Recently, the designer has commented on BGG that at its heart TAoE it is a simple “Push Your Luck” game, and if players looked at it that way, it could actually be quite fun. I agree with him—the trouble is that, as published, as with ASL, the chrome obscures that basic narrative, or rather buries it under many layers of details.

I’m now interested in taking his idea and designing a game on the same theme which brings Push Your Luck to the foreground, incorporating the details in a more organic and elegant way, and in the process also encourages more player interaction.

Of course, to do that, I’d need time.

Oh, and by the way, the designer of TAoE? None other than Tom Lehmann. He went on to learn from the experiences of his earlier design and create a game which was more elegantly streamlined and elegant (in my opinion) without losing any of the theme. The game? Race for the Galaxy.


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