An umpire’s nightmare

Four friends of mine became the Dutch boardgame champions. They scored the most points in four different games out of nineteen teams. One of them even proved to be the best player all around, with three wins and one second place. Because of their success, they are now invited to compete in the European Championship Boardgames, which are held in Essen in October.

The four games they have to play are Chicago Express, Diamonds Club, Power Grid, and Small World. I don’t know Chicago Express (but in general, I am not a big fan of Queens Games). I have never played Diamonds Club, but it was part of the Dutch boardgame championship, and my friends told me it is a very good game.

I think that Power Grid, which is one of my favorite games, is a truly excellent choice. It is a tough game, rather unforgiving, with very little chance involved, and lots and lots of player interaction. The game is already pretty seasoned, so there will be no unclarities in the rules.

With Small World, however, I predict there will be serious problems.

Small World is a modernized version of the game Vinci. It is a light war game, in which players invade a small map with armies. An army consists of between five and twenty units (but will usually have about ten units). Each army has a “race”, and a “special ability.” The game has fourteen races and twenty special abilities available. When a player has to select an army (which he does one or more times per game), he chooses between six random combinations of a race and a special ability. So, in one game there might be “flying sorcerors”, “swamp ghouls”, “merchant elves”, and “hill amazons,” while in another game the fight might be between “merchant giants”, “seafaring tritons”, “commando skeletons”, and “spirit elves”.

The random combinations make the game great fun. The key to winning is selecting the most powerful combination available. However, while some combinations are powerful per se, others might be powerful specifically against the combined powers of the opponents. Some combinations are only powerful if employed in exactly the right way. And some combinations might seem to be powerful, but are actually quite easy to defeat if the opponents find the correct approach.

The big problem of the game is the interaction between all the race powers and special abilities. The rules of the game, which seem clear from the outset, actually fail to answer many of the questions that crop up during gameplay. Often, the rules are unclear because they use terms that are not well-defined. For instance, a rule says that a race that has the “pillaging” special ability gains a point for each “non-empty region” that it conquers. But what makes a region “non-empty?” The rules don’t say. This question has already been posed to the publisher, and the answer is that a region is “non-empty” if it is occupied by an active or non-active unit, so that one is settled.

But questions like this crop up all the time. Last night I played the game and we raised a question that hinged on the definition of the word “you.” Is “you” the player, or the race that he plays? You would probably guess that it refers to the player, but the rule made much more sense if it would refer to the race. In almost all cases, it would not actually matter whether you refered to the player or the race, but in the particular situation we were in, it did.

Such issues arise because a game designer cannot acknowledge all possibilities of all combinations of all races and special abilities on one board. That is simply too big a search space for a human to grasp. It is the same with video games, which often have lots of rules, and designers are expected to foresee every tactic that a human player can employ with these rules. That is impossible in practice, and therefore, even after many man-years of playtesting, games still contain bugs and exploits in their rule sets.

Normally, in boardgames such issues are no big deal. Players simply agree on a house rule, and gaming can continue. But in serious competitions, there must be a set of undisputable rules that cover all possibilities, and all players must be aware of those rules.

Currently, competitors for the European Championship Boardgames are training to excell in Small World. They will be discussing rules interpretations. If they cannot decide on how a rule should be interpreted, they might consult the organizers, who will ask the Small World publisher for a judgement call. So from this exercise we might actually get a better set of rules.

However, I predict that many teams will interpret game situations differently, without asking the organizers because they feel that their interpretation is the most logical one. And thus disputes will arise during the actual Championship games. At that point, the rules will be interpreted and changed ad hoc, to the dismay of all the teams that are playing at that time. This will be chaos.

Small World is a really bad choice for a competition. Why was it chosen? Because it was sponsored by Days of Wonder, the publisher. And Days of Wonder sponsors it, because it want to promote this particular game. But the organizers should have refused. The fact that a game is nice in a friendly, recreational setting, does not necessarily make it suitable for competition play. And Small World definitely is unsuitable.

My friends now have to root out all the issues that they can possibly have with the Small World ruleset. I do not envy them. Playtesting should be done by the publisher, not by the players. Still, that is more or less practice with video games too.

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