Boardgaming Crossover Thoughts
The Cult of Emergence
I got the COIN game Liberty or Death this week.
Since I’m talking to my non-boardgaming collection, let me give a tiny bit of background. GMT’s COIN series is a really interesting, innovative take on classic wargaming. No hex-and-chit stacks, no stats. Play uses deterministic resolution based on your action choices: when you move this kind of unit into a space, this other kind of unit dies, or the morale of the area shifts favorably, or you shut down a road. Whatever.
COIN games are, to my mind, the storygames of the war gaming scene. They focus on the narrative arc of the various factions at play — there are always four of them — and they don’t attempt to model the physics of a conflict at all. The goal of the design is to invoke the feeling of the factions: in Fire in the Lake, when you’re playing South Vietnam, you’re fast and vicious and poor, oh god so very poor. Desperate. You make deals you’d rather not have to. If you’re the United States, you don’t want to be in the game at all. You’d think that runs counter to, you know, playing the game, right? But every incentive points at getting the hell out of the game, shutting it down, making it stop. It’s perfect.
Same with Liberty or Death, which frames the American Revolution as an insurgency by the colonists against their British masters (the COunter INsurgents). But there are four factions, right? So the French are there to fuck with the British, and the Indians are there to push back against colonial expansion. Everyone has an agenda, and those agendas sometimes align and sometimes do not. You have to work with your frenemies.
COIN games aren’t stats-and-physics games, but they’re still pretty procedurally complex. So in addition to the rulebook, there’s always a “playbook” as well. This includes a lengthy example of play to show how all the various procedures work, as well as really thoughtful essays from the designer, the developer, the line’s creator, the designer of the game’s solitaire rules, and so on. Tons and tons of opinions about how the game works, but more importantly why it works that way.
I wish more RPGs took this approach.
There’s this thing that happened way-back when small press RPGs started really taking off, and that was to get all stoked about discovering emergent properties of play. I’ve experienced this, and it’s almost magical when it happens: watching Urban Shadows players gleefully racking up Corruption and then throttling way back only when they discover it’s probably too late to stop: cool! Watching conflicts spin out of your control in Dogs in the Vineyard because you wanted to win more than you wanted to not kill. Watching your beliefs evolve through play in Burning Wheel.
So, yeah. It’s cool…when it happens. But the thing is, it doesn’t always happen.
There came to be this phenomenon where players and fans worshiped the discovery feelings to such a degree that designers started trying to aim for that as a design goal. Well, that means leaving a lot of talk out of the rulebook: how the game was intended to be played (discover it for yourself!), how best to use the tools you’ve been given (discover it for yourself!), and so on.
For me, the latest example of this design approach is Fall of Magic. There are procedural things left undiscussed that, it turns out, aren’t legal or illegal. I mean there’s precious little “game” there at all anyway, right? So why not do just whatever with this beautiful box of stuff? I’m bugged to discover that rolling up the scroll and covering where you’ve been doesn’t actually mean, or imply, that you can’t go backward on pathways, or that “get the Magus to the Umbra” isn’t actually urgent. The book doesn’t give me enough information to discover this emergent property on its own. There’s no guarantee I’ll discover this (and I didn’t).
Anyway, back to COIN!
The COIN Playbook essays go exactly the opposite direction. The designer explains why the factions are designed the way they are — what feelings they’re trying to evoke, what decisions the game will present to you — so you’re fully informed going in. So, yeah, there are some unbridgeable differences between loosey-goosey storygames and (oh lordy) wargames. There are non-negotiable procedures that must be followed in a wargame, even a narrative one like COIN. There are victory conditions. But you know what? Those COIN essays don’t talk about “how to win.” They tell you how best to use the tools you’ve been given. And as a result, you’re far more likely to experience the intended emergent gameplay than if you have to stumble through the tools yourself.
Anyway, it’s a neat approach, I feel far more comfortable getting into the game, and I’d love to see more of this in RPGs (small press or otherwise). I don’t know that I ever see much formal talk like this, other than some of the material in the Adventure Burner for Burning Wheel. There’s a little of this in the Cortex Plus Hacker’s Guide, but the audience is designers, not players. Other end of the telescope. I can’t think of any others. I guess, traditionally, the “how best to use this” talk has come from the fans and players and shows up in the form of flame wars on community boards.