The Daily Worker Placement

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Designer Spotlight: Martin Wallace Part Two

by | published Monday, January 14, 2019

Last week I took on the meaty task of providing an overview of premier designer Martin Wallace’s main themes: trains; history; military conflict. These three themes overlap and interlace, and several games (say, Brass) belong in more than one category.

This week I want to look at some of the “odd ducks” of the Martin oeuvre–games that, when you look at them and play them, and then find out it’s a Martin Wallace game, you think, “This is a Martin Wallace Game?”

  • Way Out West (2000) is Wallace’s take on the mythic Wild West. Reading the game description reminds me a bit of Great Western Trail, but with added gunplay and the usual Wallace mechanics of bidding for turn order and action drafting. Many dislike the randomness of the combat and the poorly-written rulebook (a sign of things to come…see below) but others feel it is one of his best lighter designs with an excellent meshing of theme and design.
  • Toledo (2008) is the only game you’ll find about sword-forging in medieval Spain, I guarantee it. It’s a light-to-middleweight worker-placement game, possibly influenced by 2005’s Caylus.
  • Automobile (2009) shows that railroads are not the only form of transport that interests Wallace. Set in the dawning days of horseless carriage design, players are competing tycoons racing to innovate and build–but you also have to keep an eye on market demand or risk spending too much on cars that won’t sell. Ships (2015) is more ambitious in scope, playing out over all of world history over three ages, but otherwise some amount in common with its four-wheeled predecessor.
  • Moongha Invaders (2010) is a romp which mixes the Ameritrash theme and bits a la Monsters Menace America with Wallacian tropes such as action selection and variable victory conditions. Players are trying to cause the most damage with their monsters while minimizing damage to secretly-assigned cities. Don’t let the B-movie theme fool you: there is a lot more going on under the hood than first appears. The Kickstarter version received a lot of thumbs-down for its production choices, but it includes a special two-player mode and the original first edition is much rarer, so you may have to settle.
  • Discworld: Ankh-Morpork (2011) and The Witches: A Discworld Game (2013) represent a partnership between Wallace and fantasy author Terry Pratchett. I played Ankh-Morpork once when it came out and wasn’t blown away–but then I have never read Pratchett (don’t hate me!) and the people I played with who were fans enjoyed it a lot, so I suspect these games don’t stand on their own as much as provide fan-service to Discworld lovers. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
  • A Study in Emerald (2013) is also based on source material–this time an excellent short story by Neil Gaiman set in a gaslit Victorian London where Europe has been taken over by Elder Gods. I refuse to give any more away; go find the story and enjoy it. The game, meanwhile, has players grouped into alliances pitted against each other to make Their Side win. It is a joyous mess of hidden roles, different victory conditions, and one of the most garishly-coloured boards I’ve ever encountered. The difficulty with A Study in Emerald is finding enough players experienced enough to keep the game’s knife-thin balance. It’s one of those games which falls apart unless everyone holds up their end. A second edition was released in 2015 with toned-down artwork and streamlined gameplay which was more forgiving (and therefore easier to get to the table) but therefore not quite as dramatic; it’s the first edition on Prozac. I still love it, though.
  • Wildlands (2018) is a tactical minis game. Take a minute to ponder that.

When I picked this up at the store in December I read the text on the back of the box and thought, “Huh, a card-driven fantasy-themed game with uniquely-powered factions racing to collect gems and/or knock everyone else out. And the designer is…Martin Wallace?

And furthermore, the damn thing works, and works well. You start by drafting starting positions for your team of four–and the locations you don’t pick become gems the other player(s) are trying to pick up. So, interesting decisions right off the bat. Each faction has its own deck of cards, which have multiple uses. Each faction plays differently: some are in-your-face melee, others specialize in ranged attacks, or speediness, or just messing with you. One nice touch is that the board starts empty, and each turn you have to spawn in one of your fighters, which ratchets up the tension nicely, and makes for some fun “where the heck did you come from?” moments. With two players, it’s chess-like positioning. With four, it’s a knife fight in a phone booth. Expansion factions and boards are already in the works. Wow.

Keep in mind that the games I’ve covered over the past two weeks don’t even represent even a quarter of Wallace’s output. Wallace has a deft touch for finding elegant ways to incorporate theme into his games. The quality and quantity of Wallace’s output and his versatility are truly mind-blowing.

And yet…

Despite being one of the undisputed name-above-the-title designers of the tabletop world, Martin Wallace has two related weaknesses which lead some gamers to keep his new designs at arms length:

Issues with the Rules

Right from the start (see Way out West, above) there have been complaints about Wallace’s rules-writing. In general one could say that his rulebooks are generally brief and to the point. This would be a plus if they were complete. However, he consistently words key rules assuming players will infer the correct interpretation from elsewhere in the manual. An example of this is in Lincoln, his most recent design, where much depends on understanding how locations on the board are considered to be controlled by one side or the other. Each city is split into two sub-sections, and either player can move/deploy to either side under certain circumstances. Knowing when you may or may not move into or trace supply through a city is key to winning the game, but the rules are frustratingly vague.

Other rules issues stem from what mathematicians would call “edge cases”. Every game has unusual situations which are not covered by the regular ruleset. These require special rules to keep the game from breaking. An example of this is the “ko” rule from Go which prevents an infinite loop of capturing. Other times two rules collide or even contradict each other and require some kind of ruling to give precedence to one or the other. Examples of this abound in CCG’s like Magic: the Gathering where you have to know which keyword on which card triggers first.

There are many examples of missing edge-case or priority-ruling rules in Wallace’s games. For instance, in this thread there’s a long discussion whether it is legal in Liberté to play a card in a certain situation. There is a lot of back-and-forth about the specific wording in the rules, and even some spillover into other rules.

These are cases which could (and should) have come up in playtesting and then been dealt with directly when writing the rules. Obviously you can’t cover all unusual cases, but compared to the standard out there, Wallace’s rules (at least the ones put out under his own Treefrog label) fall below the mark. You don’t want to spend two hours playing a one hour game because you’re spending half your time either debating or researching the rules.

But vaguely-worded rules are not the only consequence of inadequate playtesting…

Balance Issues

Given Wallace’s productivity, I can only imagine what a typical day in his life consists of. He must have a huge number of playtesters at his beck and call to ensure quality control, right? Well, I don’t know about that. I could go back and look at the credits to all his games and count the number of different playtesters he’s used, but the kindest thing one can say is that Wallace is not afraid to go back to his designs and tweak them to get them right. An unkinder thing one could say is that a few of his games, even major releases, seem to hit the ground broken.

The most infamous case is A Few Acres of Snow, which is a game about the Seven Years War in North America using deckbuilding. This was a highly-anticipated release (including by me) and when it came out I enjoyed it highly. Then I started to see posts on this thread on BGG which claimed that the British had an unbeatable strategy (dubbed the Halifax Hammer).

The thread goes on for 36 pages. The general consensus was: yes, with the rules as written, the French were basically done for. People (including me) piped up with suggestions for changes, but it was only eight months later that Wallace chimed in with a hotfix that nerfed the Hammer.

Hardcore players felt the game was still broken. I was satisfied, but the game’s rep was tarnished forever after that. The thing of it was, the Hammer was a pretty obvious strategy once you’d absorbed the rules and played the game a bit. Why hadn’t playtesters found it?

When Lincoln was Kickstarted, the same thing almost happened all over again when Kickstarter backers noted that the Union side was vulnerable to a sudden-death loss whereby the Rebels capture Washington; this strategy was cheekily named The Manassas Mauler. Luckily, since the game had not yet entered production, Wallace was able to make the changes before the game was released this time, and despite the rules issues (see above) I think Lincoln is a good little American-Civil-War-themed game.

Because of issues like this some fans would rather sit on their hands and wait for a second edition of a Wallace game rather than have to deal with a flawed (or broken) game which requires multiple trips to BGG to get to a playable condition. It is therefore heartening to hear that Wallace has decided to wind down his own publishing company and concentrate on design (see http://www.treefroggames.com/ for more). I believe he is right to leave the production and marketing to others and spend his time on his core strength, which is designing great games.

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