LONG post. You've been warned.
Some fifteen years ago (when I was a much more regular gamer than I am now), I began working on a game for the simple reason that I wanted to play it, and it didn’t seem to exist. What I wanted was a game about organized crime that really modeled the enterprise. Sure, there were gangster games, but they were all either tongue-in-cheek exercises meant to elicit movie quotes (Ca$h 'n Gun$), abstract math-ers with no relationship to gangster-ing (Razzia!), or silly affairs that liken turf battles on city streets to World War I trench warfare (Blood Feud in New York). I wanted to play in a real, historical setting, trying to outwit my opponents in criminal endeavor. Bootleggers had many of the right elements in place, but they were chained together in a way that made more sense for the particular Euro-style game they were going for than for any proper modeling of reality.
So I wound up in the landscape of Prohibition era Chicago. Sure, it’s a little cliché, but for a setting to support a game, its complex economics and sustained period of conflict is hard to beat. I got to work. Stack of books over here, disorganized notes over there, mocked up chits and cards and such in irregular production. Frustration galore. Did a bunch of things that were wrong from a design standpoint, even as I knew I was doing them. I liked to say I did my research with a book in one hand and a shovel in the other (any time I read something interesting, I shoveled it into the game). A lot of false starts and neat-o ideas that turned out to suck.
Sometime in the process, I came to know Twilight Struggle, then came to admire and play the living hell out of it, and started using it as a beacon of sorts. Simple gameplay. Move the chrome out of the rules and onto the cards. Later, I’d also get into some Washington's War and Labyrinth. The former acknowledged that key individuals mattered and got them on the map and at risk; I knew I needed to do that. The latter had real asymmetric conflict. Since I knew I wanted one player to be in the role of the corrupt cops, I had to build out rules for one player doing something completely different from the others on his turn.
With those three games as guideposts, I was naturally working on something in the style of a CDG “wargame” (we all know there are wargames and there are “wargames”, and Twilight Struggle and the sort are the latter). For reasons I won’t bore you with (I’m rambling a lot, and I’m nowhere near done), I could not get the game to stand up. Wouldn’t work. Wouldn’t get out of its own way. Wasn’t fun. Not for a second. It was about 2011 and I tucked it all away into boxes tossed into the back of a closet. Still believed it was a really, really good setting for a game, but I’d had enough. Right around this time, I got married, had a couple kids. Life stuff (which is a daily blessing). Pretty much quit gaming.
So fast forward a few years, and the kids start inquiring about some of the games in my closet (cue “The Circle of Life”), and I start showing them some games, explaining things, even refereed a game of Star Wars: Rebellion between the two of them, which took about a week with their attention spans, but was a hoot. In this mode, I pull out the gangster game. I was good at writing rules. And boy did I write a lot of them. I was shocked at how many there were. Fresh eyes after almost nine years in cold storage saw so, so much that had to go. I started at it again. Worked up another failed attempt, but was less frustrated this time because I really came to think the traditional CDG is the wrong foundation.
So I’m building it up with a totally new foundation, and that’s where you come in. But first, the very short history lesson. If we play a word association game and I say Prohibition era Chicago, you probably say Al Capone. If I ask you for two more things, you probably say, in some order, Eliot Ness and the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Those things are real, but it suggests a story of a monster who would smile and say nice things when the reporters were around, then murder every sad sack in his path on his way to owning all criminal activity in town. Aided by a complicit and corrupt local government, it took the Feds coming in to get the known killer and thief off the streets.
The real story goes more like this. Al Capone (and his mentor John Torrio before him) led one gang among many major ones operating in Chicago when Prohibition became law. Torrio (like his mentor Jim Colosimo before him) knew there was enough money to go around and wanted everyone to be able to share in it if it kept the body count down. An agreement was struck, and territories were assigned, and anyone who was big enough to cause trouble got a piece of the map. This was about ten gangs in what amounted to a cartel. Anyone who got a piece of the map in this accord got it for free. They owed no fealty, and didn’t “kick anything upstairs”.
Torrio had been securing beer supply before Prohibition even went into effect, and had spent years organizing police protection from the top down rather than the bottom up. So when Prohibition did become law, he had an amazing bundled product to sell to the other gangs. He sold beer wholesale to the other gangs in the cartel that didn’t have their own supply at a price that still allowed for a generous markup and included police protection. Torrio (later Capone) and his outfit did not take over all the rackets in Chicago, nor were they trying to. Some of those gangs made it through the duration of Prohibition making a heap of cash with scant confrontation or casualties to note.
Still, there were larger heaps of cash to be made if you had your own supply, and some gangs did have it. And if you had it, you wanted to be able to make as much money as you could from it, even if your piece of the map wasn’t big enough to drink it all. And while the cartel may have had clearly defined boundaries, it was far less clear on enforcement mechanisms for those who didn’t respect them.
And there is the game. It has three key elements I need to build
Supply: Local, imported, and stolen. Gangs had thirsty customers to provide for.
Political influence: It’s not just paying cops when you get picked up. It’s acquiring and using influence at the county, city, and precinct level.
People: You already knew the names of Al Capone and Eliot Ness. I’ve got dozens of others I want to introduce you to, some as much a part of the story as Capone.
I may be restarting from a mostly blank slate, but I have mountains of research and a whole notebook full of stuff-that-didn’t-work on my side, and I have three basic outlines with a little bit of low level design work done on each, and I’m trying to decide which one to pursue.
First is the heavy asymmetry version inspired by Volko Ruhnke’s COIN system (Fire in the Lake, Cuba Libre). One player is the Torrio-Capone gang, trying to keep the whole cartel together. One player is the North Side Gang, Capone’s on again-off again rival. They were tough, connected, and loyal, with a broad set of skills, but they could be very hard to deal with because it was never clear if they were in it for the money or the action. One player is the Chicago Police (and corrupt government generally) pricing out their indifference in a game of brinksmanship with the gangs. Finally, one player is the Treasury Department (and honest government generally) running operations genuinely intended to shut the rest of it down.
I love asymmetric warfare, and that appeals to me about this setup. Also, having a queue of cards drive the game can really make sure that events that drive the period get into the game. What I don’t like as much is designing a game for four and only four players, with no clear way to scale it down to two or three. I’m also not crazy about totally ripping off the basic COIN system for what could never really be a COIN game.
My second idea is totally symmetric. Any of the ten gangs in the cartel (but not Torrio-Capone) are playable, and player turns are not card driven. You get an array of actions (securing supply, bullying somebody off your turf, that sort of stuff) to do on your turn, but an event deck guides the action. Torrio-Capone is there, and what the players are doing (violence, hijacking, working outside their borders, etc.) will be tracked on scoring tracks on the board, and the Torrio-Capone Gang will, based on those priorities, act to put things back in order in between the players’ turns. Law enforcement activates from that event deck as well, adding an unpredictable element.
In terms of pros and cons, this one has scalability going for it (you could, in theory, play with ten, though I wouldn't want to), and perhaps the best potential for telling the history. For cons, it’s going to be a really tricky high wire act to make the Torrio-Capone Gang a godlike nonplayer stabilizing force while not making it an actual god, as in something that can't be challenged. For real gangs could, and did, take them on, and that must be a part of the game. Also, to put it bluntly, many of the gangs in the cartel weren’t very interesting, and probably wouldn’t be attractive to play as. They still need to go on the map and in the game and not just be there as stooges waiting to get steamrolled (because they weren’t). Another obvious drawback. Nobody gets to be Al Capone.
The final idea is based on the notion that, historically speaking, the only player in the game that had routinely interesting choices to make was the Torrio-Capone Gang. How about a pure solitaire game where you are trying to run the business and the game is just loaded up with disruptors? Here come the South Side O’Donnells. Here comes the North Side Gang. Here comes the Joe Aiello Gang. Here come the North Siders again. Here comes Eliot Ness. Here comes Roger Touhy. Here comes, Jesus, is that the North Side Gang again?
Ambitious and, I think, full of potential. While I have solo played quite a bit, I’ve not a lot of experience with proper solitaire games, and don’t know what my design model would be. I’ve taken Navajo Wars around the block a few times, and solitaired Labyrinth, but that’s it. Humans provide foils for one another in a board game, I don’t really know how I’d go about “programming” the cardboard.
So, here’s the poll:
Comments welcome, including any games I might not know about that you think might make for good homework for me. (Bonus points for historical sim-type solitaire games).
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- Rick RutherfordUnited States
MarylandNovus Ordo Seclorum
Quote:I love asymmetric warfare, and that appeals to me about this setup. Also, having a queue of cards drive the game can really make sure that events that drive the period get into the game. What I don’t like as much is designing a game for four and only four players, with no clear way to scale it down to two or three.
I recommend checking out "Vast: The Crystal Caverns" for an asymmetric game driven by cards that scales to different player counts:
Maybe you can combine that asymmetry with a dudes-on-a-map area-control game?
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- Jeff Warrender(jwarrend)United States
The asymmetric game sounds neat, I don’t think we’ve seen that before in this period and it seems like there’s potential there.
The thing about this type of game generally is that it seems like you want the possibility for players to enter marriages of convenience, not sure how that will work with the Feds though. But in general it sounds interesting!
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- robert lausevicUnited States
I'd start with the Al Capone solitaire version. Playtest it to death -- the nice thing about solitaire games is you can be the playtester. Strip out as much as you can. Boil it down to a tight fun little game. THEN and only then, see if your new game has the potential to add players.
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- Sporktopia Games(sporkage)United States
I voted for the symmetrical version. I think you could add a little asymmetry to it by having slight variability in what the gangs start with and do and maybe you don't do 10, but maybe you pick a top 6. You could even potentially have Capone as a playable, but have scoring or victory conditions that nerf them a little. Maybe it's something where you need to get the rest of the gangs in line and if conflict hits a certain level they lose, so they're more running out the clock while the others are vying for power. Just seems like your post is pushing towards seeing how the gangs interacted and that'd give the best feel for the players.
They all sound like they could have potential.
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rutherford wrote:I recommend checking out "Vast: The Crystal Caverns" for an asymmetric game driven by cards that scales to different player counts
Looks on point, and looks like a sackful of fun even if it isn't. Bought. Thanks.sporkage wrote:I voted for the symmetrical version. I think you could add a little asymmetry to it by having slight variability in what the gangs start with.
Yes, to be clear, symmetrical is meant in terms of what the players can do on their turns and what they're trying to achieve. At initial setup, each gang's location, personnel, resources, ethnicity, level of need/friendliness with the cartel, etc. will make them different, and require different strategies.sporkage wrote:[M]aybe you don't do 10, but maybe you pick a top 6. You could even potentially have Capone as a playable, but have scoring or victory conditions that nerf them a little.
Thinking about it this way, if some of those "less interesting" gangs were crews that started out buying Torrio-Capone beer, ended up buying Torrio-Capone beer, stayed in their boxes, made no trouble and counted their money (and there were some of those) were just treated as part of the Torrio-Capone Gang, what's the harm? If Torrio-Capone is nonplayer anyway, it's not like you'd be giving one player more toys than the rest.
I am really reluctant to try this iteration with Capone playable, though, as I badly want to avoid what I call The Mysterium Problem, where one person gets to do most of the fun stuff and the other players are there basically to make it more fun for that person, but I'll turn it over in my head.jwarrend wrote:The asymmetric game sounds neat, I don’t think we’ve seen that before in this period and it seems like there’s potential there.
The thing about this type of game generally is that it seems like you want the possibility for players to enter marriages of convenience, not sure how that will work with the Feds though.
Word. You have three players who frequently are at odds with one another, and more frequently have common interests. And a fourth player that has absolutely no common purpose with any of them. Furthermore, the Feds didn't really show up in any meaningful way until about 2/3 of the way through the time period in question. It's a thing to figure.
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- Piotr WołoszunPoland
Your game sounds quite familiar to games from Pax series: especially Pax Porfiriana(many different kinds of businesses, changing economy, gangsters aka hacendados, changing political environment, corruption, extorts, business and political partners, assasins, spies, fighting for influence and maaany other goodies) and Pax Renaissance(mariages and 6 million other brilliant things)
So maybe it should be another Pax game?
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- Jonathan Challis(Kelanen)United Kingdom
- I think you are far too interested in historical realities, when all we want is a game with interesting decisions, that's fun to play. The theme is a way to grok rules, and guide your artwork - nothing more.
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Kelanen wrote:I think you are far too interested in historical realities, when all we want is a game with interesting decisions, that's fun to play. The theme is a way to grok rules, and guide your artwork - nothing more.
I guess broadly speaking, I couldn't disagree more. While you abstract historical realities away by necessity to get through the game in three hours rather than fourteen years (and without actually murdering anyone), theme generally matters for historical consims, even notoriously ahistorical ones. Do you think Axis & Allies started with a bunch of abstract rules and tables, then they said "now what conflict can we attach this to so we can get artwork going?"
This is not to say that paper-thin themes can't work on fine math and geometry exercise games. I love Puerto Rico and Tigris & Euphrates. Nor is it to say that you couldn't make a totally compelling game out of The Untouchables (an unapologetically ahistorical reading of the period in question).
I like games with bibliographies. I like games I can learn from. And I know I'm not the only one (for if I were, it'd be a market of one, which is nowhere near enough volume to support the number of such games being made).
All of that is with total love and respect, of course, and you and I probably just play in different parts of the playground.
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- Derek HSouth Africa
tenhole wrote:This is not to say that paper-thin themes can't work on fine math and geometry exercise games. I love Puerto Rico and Tigris & Euphrates. Nor is it to say that you couldn't make a totally compelling game out of The Untouchables (an unapologetically ahistorical reading of the period in question).Just a quick side note from a "grumpy fan" - the theme in Tigris & Euphrates is not obvious on the surface but the game unarguably evokes the sense of empires being created and falling apart from inside or being swallowed up by an aggressive neighbor. I suppose I would say it is an "implicit" theme rather than "explicit". The former design is much, much harder to create but there is, of course, nothing wrong with opting for the latter.
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