Chaos theory has been adopted by plenty of books and films about parks filled with dinosaurs over the years, but in my eyes, the best way to explore it is in games. A game can give you a simple set of rules that turn into a complex minefield of deep strategy and forethought within a couple of turns, and it can really make use of the butterfly effect in interesting ways. Of course, striking the balance between elegant and oversimple is what game design is all about, and almost all the games at this Playup were aiming for that sweet spot. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to play all the games on show, but that doesn’t mean I was ignoring the games altogether, but we’ll get to that!
Keeping it small and deceptive was Eeshwar Rajagopalan’s Flip Flop, a two-player game about territory and shape-making. The last time I saw Flip Flop was at Playup 5, and it’s obvious that the game’s had an overhaul based on the feedback it received. The small board was still there, but the focus has shifted from cascading flips to positioning an agent and controlling token colours on the board. If you can make a shape out of your colour that matches a card on the table and your agent is in it, you get points. It’s great to see these changes, especially because they work so well.
As it stands, the mechanics are solid enough that Eeshwar could release the game right now. The rules were so simple that newcomers could pick up and play it but offered enough depth for a satisfying amount of challenge. The addition of the agent made all the difference, since it allowed me to draw my focus to specific regions of the board instead of having to take the whole board in at once. The only thing the game really needs now is balancing.
Due to the simplicity of the rules, the scoring system was a little broken. When you made any shape apart from a line, you could score one point, but a line would get you three. Getting the line was difficult, but I managed to get it, and from that point on, the game was mine. There was no way that I could be beaten, which made the game less tense for me and my opponent, but that was the only real problem with the game! The improvements made since I played Thirtysix have really helped it evolve, and I’m really glad Eeshwar has listened to the feedback to improve the game!
Rolling with the evolving complexity approach was Alex and Chris’ Newfoundland, a settlement game with a board that took up an entire table. I would love to describe exactly what the game was about, but a playthrough took a few hours, so there was only one group that got to try it for the whole Playup session. The game was explained to me by the devs though, so I did understand some of the core mechanics involved. The most important one that I saw was the way that players were broken into the rules.
Despite the huge board size, the game introduced players to the rules as the game progressed. Tiles were put on the board in player’s turns, so the rules only came up as they were needed, and there was no laborious set-up beforehand. The game was so easy to grasp that the kids playing it weren’t phased by the hugeness of the board. Apart from thinking this was an ingenious way to design a game of this size, once it got going, everyone still had a firm grasp of what was happening.
The board went from barren to seemingly incomprehensible in the space of an hour, but what surprised me was that none of the players (including the kids) were overwhelmed. The slow break-in meant that what looked like utter chaos from the outside was perfectly reasonable to someone playing the game. On top of that, the size of the board meant that the simplicity of the rules could be taken to logical extremes, which is always awesome to watch unfold. I would have loved to give it a go myself, but hopefully we see it again at a future Playup!
The other entry from Alex and Chris was a decidedly more traditional game that shared many traits with Newfoundland. Introduced to me as their “wargame offering”, Pyrrhic is all about positioning your troops and utilising terrain. Again, I wasn’t able to play the game since it took at least an hour to play, but I had a very close eye on one playthrough. It shared the same tile placement system as Newfoundland but opted for a troop deployment system before the game began. While it wasn’t quite as newbie friendly as their other game, Pyrrhic was still accessible to anyone willing to try it out.
Both games Alex and Chris offered seemed to go with the ‘simple rules done big’ mentality. Pyrrhic had four pages of rules that were easier to wrap your head around than an episode of Parks and Rec, and this was the game that was meant to be more complex. Pyrrhic required a bit more investment, but the basic ideas of laying down terrain as the game progressed and playing on a huge board were carried across. It was all very quick to learn and easy to play, so the next step is to appeal to veteran wargamers.
While I can appreciate the straightforward rules, there’s room to give players more freedom in how they enter the game. Pre-made armies are great for beginners to absorb the rules, but old wargamers like myself like to have a bit more control over our army’s composition. There’s already very little set-up for the game, and the base is solid, so the devs should think about rules that add a bit more nuance and player control to the game to attract those who want something a bit meatier. I wanted to try it out quite badly, but alas, time wasn’t on my side.
This Playup was a bit like looking at different ways to approach the same challenge of balancing complexity with simplicity. Some were big, some were small, but they all brought something to the table. I may not have been able to try out half the games, but I’m hoping I get to see them come back for future Playups!