Wednesday, October 14, 2015

OUR ROYAL BONES AND SHIELDS & SWORDS (guest post by Tom Russell)

Our Royal Bones: The Battle of Bouvines is the thirtieth battle I've designed for the Shields & Swords series, which sounds like an awful lot, and you're probably wondering, where the heck are all these games at? Well, twenty-five of the thirty were designed for a single boxed game that should be coming out next year. I don't know about you, but a box with twenty-five battles from the ninth and tenth century sounds pretty cool to me.

And of those thirty battles, ORB: BOB is easily in my top ten, maybe my top five, which is saying something! (Certainly it has the best abbreviation.) It was one of my favorite battles to design and remains one of my favorite battles to play.
The thing about the broad period of time that historiography has dubbed the Middle Ages is that an awful lot of the battles take the form of "this side lined up over here, that side over there, the two sides started bashing each other's skulls in until one side was left". And while most of the battles are going to conform to that broad structure in one way or the other, it's my job as a designer to differentiate them, to find what makes each one special-- a terrain feature, a force imbalance, a narrative element-- and then build the game around that. So, when a battle has a lot of meat for me to hang onto, it makes my job a whole lot easier, and this was certainly the case with Bouvines:

·    You have two very different command structures-- Phillip's French army against a motley collection of English, Flemish, Germans, and more. This let me reflect the limitations of a coalition army directly through the existing Wing Activation/Command Chit structure.
·    You have a weak flank on the French left. This gives the coalition player an instant victory condition to work toward-- possession of the bridge hex, cutting off the French line of retreat-- and something for the French player to defend against.
·    You have a force imbalance-- sort of. Both sides had infantry and both sides have cavalry, with the coalition having more of the former and the French more of the latter. The coalition infantry was pretty boss, and may have won the day, if not for...
·    ...the timely deployment of Phillip II's heavy cavalry reserve! When to deploy one's reserve is a problem that has vexed commanders for centuries. Too soon and they'll fizzle out, too late and they won't make a difference-- but do it just right, and it can be decisive. Ol' Phil did it just right. I was able to tie this key decision to the Initiative Marker. It's the hinge on which the whole architecture of the battle turns.

The great thing about all of these elements is that I was able to build the game around them without having to invent a bunch of new mechanics or special rules; they're all things that could be reflected within the existing structure of the system. There are some special rules for elite cavalry, rearguard units, and VP-rich nobles, but the point is I didn't need to reinvent the wheel. I could take the wheel I already had, fit it on the car, and get right to test-driving and fine-tuning without too many false starts. It made the design process fairly painless, and I'm all for painless.

As I mentioned, I also really dig this battle as a player. Now, before I go any further, let me say that I dig all the Shields & Swords games. If I don't dig 'em, I don't put them out into the wild. I am reminded of something the director Paul Thomas Anderson said about his sophomore effort Boogie Nights: "No one has to see this film more than me." However popular the S&S system ends up being, and I sure hope it's going to be, no one is going to have to play more S&S games than I do, and no one is going to have to play each game as many times as I do.

So, Stamford Bridge, A Hill Near Hastings, We Happy Few, Our Royal Bones-- I like 'em all. They're all fun, at least from where I'm sitting, and they all do what I want them to do. That is, they all recreate the historical situation to the degree that it is possible given the parameters of the series and the notorious unreliability of period sources. Stamford Bridge has that sense of narrative-- the surprise attack, the struggle to cross the river, the succession of Viking leaders, the last gasp of Orri's Storm. It does what a game on Stamford Bridge should do. A Hill Near Hastings is about the Normans hammering futilely against the static Anglo-Saxon line, at least until discipline breaks and it all goes to hell; it does what a game on Hastings should do. I like Stamford Bridge more than A Hill Near Hastings-- it's an inherently more interesting situation, and there's a lot more options open to both players. Again, to be clear, I still dig Hastings, and I'm not faulting it for not being Stamford Bridge. I figure if you're going to buy a game on Hastings, or on Agincourt (like We Happy Few), then you want to play a game about Hastings or about Agincourt, and that you're going to be aware of the limitations and peculiarities inherent in simulating that historical situation.

Whereas Bouvines, as recreated in Our Royal Bones, seems to be almost replete with possibilities while remaining historically viable. Yes, you've still got two armies lined up a handful of hexes apart from one another, but you have a lot more choices, some of which are highly contextual, and there's a greater potential for maneuver and experimentation. I've seen both sides squeak out a victory, and I've seen both sides clobber the other decisively. Both players must decide where and when to attack and to defend, where to be strong, and where to leave a weakness. Everything or nothing can depend on that cavalry reserve, depending on the choices the players have made up until that point, and afterwards. As a tense, competitive experience, it's aces. 

At least for me, anyway, and I did  design the darn thing, so there you go.

Note from Mary: Bouvines has very little to do with cattle, other than there may have been a few cattle, who may have been grazing nearby and possibly witnessed the whole thing, but wisely took their solicitors advise and said nothing.

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