The Daily Worker Placement

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Designer Spotlight: Martin Wallace Part One

by | published Monday, January 7, 2019

It’s been almost exactly a year since I took a tour through the work of one of tabletop’s major designers (Friedmann Friese, link here). And with the release of Lincoln and Wildlands, two very different games, in the waning months of 2018, it seemed like an opportune time to turn the spotlight on Martin Wallace.

Wallace is a native of England currently living in Australia (according to his BGG page). 1993’s Lords of Creation was his first published game. What’s interesting to me about Wallace’s work over the years is that while he revisits certain interlinked themes over and over again, he definitely refuses to pigeonhole himself and is more than willing to mine other seams (#seewhatIdidthere) as well, both thematically and mechanically.

So, as I did with Uwe Rosenberg two years ago (link), I’m going to review Wallace’s career thematically instead of chronologically. This week I will look at his Big Three; next week I will look at some of the “irregulars” of his career and end off by discussing his overall strengths and weaknesses as a designer.

Trains:

2002’s Age of Steam is, along with Brass (see below), the game that many associate with Wallace. It’s a (some would say the) classic pick-up-and-deliver game. Cities of various colours on the hexagonal map are randomly seeded at the beginning of the game with goods cubes of those same colours. Players lay track between cities and through towns to enable them to pick up the goods from their city of origin and deliver them to the city of the same colour. The farther they travel, the more they’re worth. The delivering player gets to choose how much of the reward to take in income and how much to take in points. You may use other players’ tracks to deliver goods–but you must then also share the proceeds.

The game also pioneers certain mechanics that would turn up again and again in Wallace’s games–even ones that aren’t train or pick-up-and-deliver games:

  • players bid for turn order;
  • players draft actions from a limited menu, so coming later in turn order means your choices are more constrained;
  • players can (and often have to) take out loans to get the cash they needed, and part of the challenge is managing your debt load.

Age of Steam spawned countless modules, sequels, including Glenn Drover’s remake Railways of the World and its many expansions and versions. For various reasons which I believe involve copyright, Wallace re-released Age of Steam as Steam in 2009, although there were some minor gameplay and component changes as well. There is also quite a good app version, also available on Steam for PC.

Other games in Wallace’s oeuvre where rail building figures prominently include:

  • Brass (2007), considered by many to be Wallace’s finest game, (see below) scaled-down and revisited in Age of Industry (2010);
  • Steel Driver (2008);
  • Last Train to Wensleydale (2009), which is maybe the only game specifically about delivering cheese;
  • First Train to Nuremberg (2010), a sequel and revision of Wensleydale, with beer instead of cheese;
  • Via Nebula (2016), a train game in fantasy disguise as players operate in the clouds to dispel the mists and build an air city.

History:

Many of Wallace’s train games overlap thematically with another of his go-to’s: world history, particularly English/British history and the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Brass is the keystone game bridging the two: the game takes place in the north of England over two eras, pre- and post-railroad. Players need to invest in both resource and commodity production as well as infrastructure. The game requires you to constantly pay attention to what other players are doing, manage your money situation (taking loans as required), and as if that were not enough you must also innovate your technologies.

Brass continues to be very popular among the cognoscenti, as evidenced by the very successful Kickstarter re-release and expansion last year. And, as with Age of Steam, there are very good app and PC ports which help new players get up to speed with its intricate strategy.

But Wallace’s interest in history reaches much further back than that. In six years he designed no less than four games set in the Greek and Roman era:

  • Empires of the Ancient World (2000) was his take on the classic Avalon Hill game Civilization (not the computer game);
  • Conquest of the Empire (2005) piggybacked on the re-release of the 1984 Milton Bradley classic (Axis and Allies was part of the same series). You could play the game with the original rules or with Wallace’s. Guess which one was more interesting;
  • Byzantium (2005) is unique in so many ways. Set at the end of the Dark Ages as the Byzantine Empire began to crumble, it resembles Imperial (though released a year earlier) in that players take the role not of empires but of shadow powers behind the throne(s), hiring and leading armies of all sides for personal gain. The victory conditions reward players who play each side off against the other–or who shoot the moon and go big for one side. Fascinating and should be more heralded;
  • Perikles (2006) is like Byzantium in that players compete for influence in Greek city states, with the winners getting to control that city’s armies in battle.

On top of that, over the years he has visited other eras with games both light and heavy and a variety of mechanics that belie the idea that Wallace is all about trains and the Industrial Revolution:

  • Mordred (1999) is set during the legendary era of King Arthur. Players compete to settle/conquer Wales for the Round Table, all the while keeping Mordred’s armies at bay. The problem is that the more players build, the more Mordred spreads too. Another Wallace game with variable victory conditions: if the Knights have control, the player who built the most is the winner, but if Mordred’s shadow looms, then the winner is the one who helped him the least. Mordred was retooled as The Arrival in 2016;
  • Liberté (2001) holds a special place in my heart as it was my first Wallace game. It was listed in GAMES Magazine’s Top 100 for 2001 and at the time that was enough of a recommendation. Liberté is about political chaos of the French Revolution. There are three factions: Royalists, Moderates, and Radicals. As you might guess by now, players get to “invest” in all three, competing in elections throughout France. The more elections you win, the better–but there are not one but TWO sudden death victory conditions which hand victory to a player who backs one of the extremist parties. The first edition was marred by poor colour-choice for the map and cards, but this was corrected for the second edition in 2010. The game is playable by three to six players, but really shines with four or five;
  • Struggle of Empires (2004) was similar in same was to Empires of the Ancient World but set during the 18th century. Players take the role of European dynastic nations competing with each other around the world;
  • Rise of Empires (2009) was Wallace’s attempt at a Civilization-themed game spanning the millennia. Spread over three eras, the game plays briskly but in its abstraction it lacks the immersive quality of other games of the genre;
  • London (2010) was, as its name implies, about the great lady astride the Thames, following its history from the Great Fire of 1666 to the present. Players build tableaux by drafting cards representing buildings, monuments, Great People, businesses, and sociological groups which generate points, money–and poverty, which if not got rid of loses mucho VP. You have to lay claim to various city districts on the map, too. London proved successful enough to inspire a reissue in 2017 which removes the mapboard, streamlines play, and in general improves gameplay;
  • another damn Civilization Game (2011) was one of four minigames Wallace designed specially for Spielbox magazine (the others were Slate, Great Western, Fall of the Roman Empire, which you might infer covered all of Wallace’s greatest hits). With only one page of rules and a Candyland-like track numbered track, adCg made no pretense to historical simulation or difficulty, but Wallace manages to insert enough interesting decisions and theme to make it worth checking out if you can get a copy.

Military Conflict

Although Wallace’s historical games incorporated combat (how could they not), Wallace clearly became more interested in the nuts and bolts of individual wars, campaigns, and battles, because starting in 2009 he began to release games that one could also classify as “light wargames”, conflict simulations which incorporated mechanics from the boardgame universe:

  • Waterloo (2009); Gettysburg (2010); Test of Fire: Bull Run (2011); and Clash of Wills: Shiloh (2012) are “dudes on a map” style wargames with a significant card-playing element. It definitely took some cojones for Wallace to tackle four of the most commonly-simulated battles of the nineteenth-century. There are plenty of traditional hex-and-counter versions out there, including some excellent introductory games like Waterloo 20 by Victory Point Games and the Blue & Grey Quad. So who would these games appeal to? Wallace’s games are perfectly serviceable, but I confess they did little for me;
  • A Few Acres of Snow (2011), Mythotopia (2014), Lincoln (2018) on the other hand, were of far more interest to me. I love A Few Acres of Snow (an unpopular opinion for reasons I will get into next week) and Lincoln (a Kickstarter which arrived at the end of 2018) for their amalgam of traditional consim tropes with deck manipulation. I haven’t played Mythotopia because its generic fantasy theme doesn’t appeal to me, but it uses the same mechanics, and 2019 will see the last game in this ad hoc series with the s.f. themed A Handful of Stars.

That covers Wallace’s three favourite themes. You get a sense of the incredible range of interests of the man, the restlessness with which he moves among them, and above all his prolific output. Next week I will look at some of his games that lie outside this framework, and the Achilles Heel lurking beneath all this productivity.


Comments

No comments yet! Be the first!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.