Author's Note: Joe Huber recently posted an excellent series of articles in rec.games.board giving his impression of 21 designers of German games. With his encouragement, I've decided to pen a few articles myself on some of the designers that he didn't cover. The first article concerns Britain's Martin Wallace.
Lords of Creation
Sixteen Thirty Something
Age of Arguments
Empires of the Ancient World
Way Out West
Der Weiße Lotus
Age of Steam
Princes of the Renaissance
Secret of the Tombs
Runebound (with Darrell Hardy)
Struggle of Empires
Martin Wallace is one of the leading game designers in the world today. Perhaps more than any other designer, he has successfully merged the German ideal of clever, innovative mechanics with the American ideal of a strong, well-integrated theme. He has an impressive catalog of designs and appears to be in the prime of his career.
My initial impression of Wallace's work actually wasn't all that positive. Clearly there was an inventive mind at work here and I liked the fact that he included active conflict in his games. However, I also felt that he relied on high-luck mechanics more than I cared for. There seemed to be a flaw in many of his early designs that kept me from liking them more.
Wallace's first published design, Lords of Creation, is a good case in point. This is a Risk-type combat game with many interesting ideas. I've never had the chance to play it, and I'm not all that sure that I want to because of one strange rule. You roll two dice to attack in the game and if you roll doubles, you have to stop! You might have planned out a whole series of attacks, but one inopportune roll and your turn is over. These are the kinds of rules that drive me crazy because it can be so hard to recover if you get unlucky a couple of turns in a row. It seems that Wallace doesn't mind this kind of effect, a bad break is just one more obstacle to recover from. It's a valid point, but not one I happen to share.
The earliest Wallace game I have played is Age of Arguments. This is another conflict oriented game, this time with cards. Again, there are some good ideas, but the flaw in this design is the blind bidding combat system. To fight, you and an opponent play cards face down and the one who has the higher total wins. Losing a couple of conflicts by one can really put you behind the eight ball and with little information to go on, victory seems to be more good fortune than good judgment. Not terribly bad, but not really worth playing again.
Lancashire Railways is the first Wallace train game I played and it was obvious from the start that the man has an affinity for the choo-choos. You're bidding for rail segments and can also make shipments across purchased segments (both your own and your opponents'). Every time a shipment uses one of your segments, your income increases. Money is extremely tight in this game, a Wallace trademark. Figuring out how to stay solvent, while also keeping your nose ahead of your opponents is a real challenge. The luck level is quite acceptable in this one. The game has a good pace, although it does take two hours to play (Wallace is one of the few European designers around today who doesn't mind creating longer games). This is a fine game and would soon spawn even better ones.
For a little known game, Mordred holds an important place in the history of Warfrog, the company that publishes most of Wallace's games. It's a dice-oriented area combat game. Interestingly, the players choose each turn which of three columns to read the dice roll against; some are safer, but the riskiest one also has the greatest rewards. Good results include attacking Mordred, the enemy of all the players; the bad results mean Mordred gets to attack. Depending on how well Mordred does, the game can end in one of two ways, each of which has a different method for determining victory (an idea that will resurface in Liberté). The game is a dicefest, but it's a fun dicefest, with interesting decisions on each turn. However, the game's components are so poor that they really do detract from the experience. As it turned out, it sold so poorly that Warfrog decided to substantially upgrade the quality of their later releases, an important step for the company.
The first Warfrog games with improved components were Empires of the Ancient World and Way Out West. I haven't played the former, but it is reportedly yet another Wallace game with interesting mechanics and a major problem (combat is determined by secretly arranging the order of your troops, which often turns the game into a crap shoot). Unfortunately, that summarizes my feelings for Way Out West as well. A game based in the Wild West (at a time when such games were rare), Way Out West is essentially a tile placement/area majority game with an economic element. It features several innovations that would appear in later Wallace games (limited action availabilities, bidding for first player). Figuring out how to best play the systems and your opponents is challenging and requires careful planning, but that planning can be made completely superfluous by the combat system. Not only is this another dice driven system, but a player who is attacked in an area and loses (often due to quirky dice rolls) is now defenseless and can expect to be mercilessly pounded by his opponents. Thus, a game that I'd like to spend plotting and planning invariably turns into a dice fest. This is a shame, as this was a game I really wanted to like.
Der Weiße Lotus, the first Wallace board game to be released by a German publisher (his card game Und Tschüß! was the first of his German designs) fared even worse with our group. This game of negotiation and conquest simply didn't grab us and the game's repetitive nature (you vote each round which player will be eliminated, Survivor style, with multiple rounds usually necessary to resolve a conflict) didn't help. We found the "designer rules" to be, if anything, worse than the published rules.
I should point out that not everyone shares my feelings about these early Wallace designs. Quite a few players enjoy these high luck combat systems and feel they enhance, rather than detract from these games. I don't necessarily mind dice rolling (witness my fondness for Mordred), but I do object to its inclusion in games which require careful planning. That's exactly the combination Wallace was providing circa 2000 and I found it most frustrating, since on the surface, all his games seemed quite promising. In point of fact they are all playable and well designed, they just happened to include aspects which rubbed me the wrong way. Fortunately, good things were right around the corner.
2001 was Martin Wallace's break out year. He had three designs released, by three different publishers on three different land masses. All were popular and critical successes and each was nominated for Game of the Year by the International Gamers Association (the IGA award people). Clearly, the man had arrived.
The game that attracted the most attention was Liberté, a card-driven area majority game set during the French Revolution. The design has the kind of historical background and innovative mechanics one has grown to expect from Wallace, but what really got people excited were the variable victory conditions, which were more involved and even more dramatic than those in Mordred. This is an intense, challenging game which I enjoy playing, but I do have a couple of reservations. The first is that the relative positions of each faction are so critical that you spend an awful lot of time counting, which can make the game drag a bit. A more serious problem is that the cards differ dramatically in usefulness, which means that the card display usually gets clogged with poor cards early on, so that players invariably replenish their hands from the stock. Not only is it bizarre to have a card drafting game in which cards are never drafted, the blind draws add dramatically to the luck factor. I'll only play the game with a variant suggested by Counter magazine editor Stuart Dagger and modified by me (you can find it here) which effectively solves this problem. I'm a little puzzled that the game was released with this issue, but at least I'm able to enjoy what is otherwise a fine design.
To me, the star of Wallace's 2001 designs is Pampas Railroads. One of Wallace's defining characteristics is his ability to build upon his previous designs. Specifically, he designs his rail games in families. One family of games began life as Ferrocarriles Pampas (in which Wallace began his productive association with Winsome's owner and developer, John Bohrer), followed by Veld Spoorweg, Prairie Railroads, and Pampas Railroads. In each of these games, there are publicly owned railroads which the players can buy shares in. The money from these sales goes to each company's treasury and is used to expand its rail network. The locations the networks connect to determines each company's value per share at the end of the game. These core ideas work well in all these games. The principle difference between the designs is how each player's choice of action is determined. In Ferrocarriles Pampas, a random chit draw is used. In each succeeding game in the family, chance plays less and less of a role until in Pampas Railroads, it is decided entirely by the active player (although Wallace still cleverly manages to limit the available choices). This illustrates how Martin was moving away from luck-driven mechanics over the years and was for me a most welcome evolution. Pampas Railroads is an excellent game, full of tension and tight decisions, with a healthy scope for strategy as well as tactics. The only reason it doesn't come to the table more often is its three hour playing time, but that is invariably time well spent.
Volldampf belongs to Wallace's other family of rail games, the one that began with Lancashire Railways. It represents a streamlining of the basic ideas in Lancashire Railways, with a few other changes, some for the better and some not. Nonetheless, this Germanized version of the game plays quite well, handles six players nicely, and can be finished in as little as an hour. It got a good deal of play before it was overtaken by Wallace's magnum opus.
That, of course, would be Age of Steam. This got an enormous amount of buzz prior to its appearance for a game from a small company and it proved to be entirely worthy of it. Age of Steam takes the Lancashire Railways system to new and more complex heights. Instead of bidding on track segments as in the earlier games in the series, the players get to construct them themselves, which adds another level of strategy to the game. Proper timing is critical here. The turn order bidding system from Way Out West is used to excellent effect in this design. The addition of different roles to the game, each with its own advantage and which are chosen in bid order, gives the game a tremendous amount of variety and really adds to the significance of the bidding. As in Wallace's other rail game family, there is a reduction in the random elements. In the case of Age of Steam, it's the production of the delivery cubes; instead of determining these randomly, they are known ahead of time and only the exact time of their appearance is random. This is an excellent enhancement. The game is just chock full of innovations and plays superbly. Each turn is filled with important decisions and is totally engrossing; you really need to be on top of your game to play this well. Money is extraordinarily tight, even more so than is usual with Wallace. And, miracle of miracles, this is all accomplished in a game of two hours duration. Age of Steam quickly became one of my Top Ten favorite games of all time and it shows no sign of being pushed out any time soon. Incidentally, I've yet to play with any of the expansion maps, but I'm currently quite happy with the game in its original form.
Against this backdrop, it was easy to ignore Tyros, released in the same year, but this is a nice little game. It's yet another design about civilizations expanding around the Mediterranean. Its principal mechanic is that actions are accomplished by gathering and turning in sets of cards. This is reasonably similar to the system used in Alan Moon's Andromeda, but thankfully does not include that game's disastrous combat determination device (the infamous "Cosmic Ashtray"). What it does have is a good deal of trading between players and some interesting movement rules. Tyros isn't a great game, but it's another good solid Wallace design and a game well worth playing.
The latest "big" Wallace game is Princes of the Renaissance. Once again, Martin's fascination with history and his thorough research shows through. The subject this time is Italy during the time of the Borgias. The game is a complex mix of auctions, warfare, dirty deeds, and special actions. It all hangs together quite well and in fact there may be too many choices! This is a game where familiarity with both the mechanics and the different tiles is essential to play well and I really haven't had enough plays to reach that point. It also doesn't help that our games continue to be dominated by military success. I am assured that this can be countered; I believe it, I just haven't figured out how to implement it. In spite of this, this is a deep and well designed game that would surely get a lot of play if it took less than two hours. With a three-hour duration, it's harder to get to the table, which makes it tough to achieve the necessary familiarity. I still count it as another Wallace success and trust my opinion will rise even further with greater exposure to the game.
Veld Railroads is the latest member of the Pampas Railroads family. If I had never played Pampas Railroads, I would no doubt be quite enthused about it. The changes this time are less dramatic than in the earlier games in the series. They are interesting, but also introduce a good deal of bookkeeping. I think I prefer Pampas Railroads, but more to the point I was quite disappointed that Wallace hadn't come up with more significant advancements in the series. Still, if you don't own Pampas Railroads, this remains an excellent game; I just don't see the point in owning both.
Lately, Wallace is showing another side to his design talents by coming up with lighter designs with more universal appeal. I haven't played Secret of the Tombs or Runebound, but I have tried La Strada. This is an middle-weight tile laying game with simple, elegant rules. Interestingly, since there is no luck in the game once player order is established, it seems that this could be played ultra-seriously, with players planning many moves ahead. Maybe some folks play like this, but we play it fairly quickly, the way I imagine most gamers do, making this a meaty filler. The game seems to accomplish exactly what it sets out to do, which is certainly a reasonable definition for a well designed game.
Wallace is riding high now, but he shows no sign of slowing down. Indeed, one of the more anticipated titles for the latter half of 2004 is his Struggle of Empires, yet another meaty historical design. I'm looking forward to trying that one out, as well as his Australian Railways, in which he again tweaks the Lancashire Railways design. I'm anxious to see what new refinements he's come up with for that well regarded system.
What impresses me most about Wallace is the growth that he's shown as a designer over the past decade. From the beginning his ideas were always innovative and his choice of themes excellent, but his later designs show increasing levels of sophistication and better design choices. It may seem as though I'm being harsh on some of his earlier work, but much of that is because the games showed such promise that I found some of his "old school" preferences disappointing. Besides, almost all these games are worth playing, not a bad recommendation for one's "failures".
However, I still feel that it's his later work that shines. Beginning with the new millennia, Wallace's games have been consistently good and sometimes excellent. He remains the best designer today at merging strong themes with strong mechanics. He is able to do this because his themes are neither pasted on, nor the basis of simulations. Instead, they are simply drawn from interesting periods of history and always enhance, but never dominate, the rest of the design. I count Martin Wallace as one of my favorite designers and always await his new designs with considerable anticipation.
- Larry Levy