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The History of Krieg und Frieden and Charlemagne
by Gerard Mulder
Holland is culturally speaking much more Anglo Saxon than German. The Dutch speak better English than German and we listen to English music and watch American films. We also play American and English Games. To me the Anglo Saxon Games tradition is one that aims to create a realistic game atmosphere. It all starts with Monopoly and Risk: You want to get rich, so you buy and rent out real estate; you want to conquer the world, so you build armies and attack the other guys. This approach to designing games is essentially followed by companies like Avalon Hill. The desire for 'realism' has spawned ever more complex games where every possible historical detail is covered by an ad hoc rule. Some brilliant examples of this kind of game are Republic of Rome and Empire at Arms. The massive number of war games should also be placed under the same heading. Abstract mechanisms are usually not very important in these games. It is clear what you are doing but the way it works out in the game is fairly coincidental. While I grew up in this tradition of games I noticed that some games stood out. Diplomacy, Civilisation, Acquire and some other titles offered something more than realism. They felt good. They had somehow captured the spirit of what you were actually doing.
More recently people in the Netherlands (like most of the English speaking world) are discovering the German school of games design. In German games the mechanism comes first. Later some realism is added on. Some games capture the real world quite well: Siedler, Euphrat und Tigris, El Grande. Others are rather soul-less: they may have a clever mechanism but the theme is 'dragged in by the hair'. This is especially so in many cardgames, but it is also true of some very good boardgames such as Ra and Tikal.
Designing games theme first or mechanism first that is the real difference between the Anglo Saxon and German traditions. Naturally in practice people always combine the two. I would even go so far as to say that the best games from both schools are all combinations of strong mechanisms and strong themes. The only notable exception to this rule is to my mind Reiner Knizia. He seems to be a designer who always works from the mechanism, though even when the theme is far fetched he manages to compensate for that with the sheer power of his mechanisms.
I am a player that values atmosphere and realism very highly in a game. For me the mechanism alone usually does not provide enough incentive to play and replay a game. For the atmosphere to be good the game must feel right. For a game to feel right everything you do must make sense in the role you are currently playing. If you score points I want to know what they mean in the story of the game. If you get income, where does it come from? If you spend something, where does it go? This does not mean you are not allowed to use clever mechanisms to achieve your goal of 'living the game'.
With this in mind I designed Charlemagne. In Charlemagne you are a medieval noble competing for the king's favours (what else did nobles do in those feudal days?). I designed the game starting with the mechanism. This sounds a bit contradictory but it really isn't. The mechanism I thought of first is a model for a primitive economy not driven solely by money. This economy could then be placed anywhere suitable in history and the rest of the story added to it. The idea is that there were (are) economies where money is not dominant over all other goods and services. When this is the case you cannot focus all your efforts on one commodity. Depending on the circumstances you must have access to different goods and favours. How exactly you divide the power continuum into chunks depends on the theme you choose. In a medieval setting it would have to be something like it is in Charlemagne:
- Food = barley -- important when there is a shortage of food
- People who fight for you = knights -- important in conflicts
- People who work for you = Loyal peasants
- Money = valuables -- wealth that is easy to transport
The economic system is the heart of Charlemagne but it is not of itself a game. For a game you need conflicts of interest and in a medieval setting the conflict of interest is clear. In the hierarchy of nobles there is only one one goal: Be as close to the top as you can be. Sure, there were nobles that were busier doing nice things for their peasants but they are not represented in this game. A conflict of interest provides enough material for a game. However in real life it is not always obvious what to do to achieve your goals. Therefore we also want to pose a dilemma for the players. Dilemmas are usually a trade off between short and long term gains. The short term gains are usually more secure, the long term gains are usually bigger (otherwise it would not be a dilemma, would it). In the case of medieval nobles it is again simple. Do I use the means that I have to improve my estate or do I invest in my relations with the king? If I improve my position I might have a better chance in the future. On the other hand the other nobles might get jealous and the king might even think I am not being a loyal servant. Perhaps it is better to please the king now and secure my position at the court.
All the above ideas are knitted together in a compact game mechanism in Charlemagne (Krieg und Frieden). The economic system together with the problem cards sets the stage the economy. In case of a war your knights are most valuable. In case of a famine your barley is worth much more than your knights, etcetera. Bidding resources for solving the problems provides the interaction between players. The nobles offer the king means to deal with the problems. The king is most grateful to the noble that offers most help. That noble receives honour and privileges for his work.
The resources must be spent sparingly because they are also needed to build your own estate. Your estate is the source of your wealth. Giving food to your people allows you to build more farmsteads and for the population of your lands to grow. Your knights provide protection and can go out to plunder rival nobles. Your gold can be used to bribe your opponent's warriors and to gain information on his position. Using your labour force you can create craftsmen to provide the king with better service.
Income depends on the number of farmsteads on your estate. On your land you only have limited space. You must choose between building huts for craftsmen and farmsteads. This poses you with another dilemma. Is your economy strong enough to support a force of builders?
Two more mechanisms need to be added to finish the game. One is a timer element. When does the game end? The easy way out is to say the game ends when the king is dead. This can be some random factor. Random factors are realistic but not much fun. In Charlemagne I opted for something that is more related to what people do in the game. The game ends when the Cathedral is finished (was a Castle originally). When a problem is solved the country sometimes rejoices by making an addition to the Cathedral. The person that paid most to solve the problem is also credited for building the latest addition to the Cathedral. You can enhance the beauty of your addition by training some of your peasants as builders.
The second element is the way to set the agenda for which problem to solve. Again a random drawing of event cards is the easy and seemingly realistic option, you never know when disaster strikes. When you think about it, it does not work like that in real life. The priorities at the court for which problem to address are as much set preferences of the king and his advisers. as by what actually happens.
In Charlemagne I assume that all problems are going on at the same time. It is just a matter of priority which problem will be tackled first. Each player controls a number of problem cards. The king's adviser, namely the player that solved the last crisis, is the one who decides which problem will be tackled during the next year. Other players can influence this choice by returning their privileges to the king. By giving up privileges and thus convincing the king of changing the agenda, the nobles try to make sure they will be the one that can solve this year's problem.
Lastly there are some rules to keep strong players in check and help weak players to stay in the game. These rules also follow naturally from the theme. The king has no interest in allowing one of the nobles to dominate or go under. He must divide and conquer.
Even though Charlemagne models all these aspects of feudal life, the rules are still very compact. The game is easy to learn even by 10 year olds. The mechanisms are elegant and the play is realistic. This is my design philosophy and I intend to make many more games like this.
reprinted from Counter Magazine with kind permission of the Editors and the Author