Larry Levy and Tom Rosen have been going round and round arguing about Martin Wallace lately so it’s high time they settle this the old-fashioned way – pistols at high noon… errr, or maybe just an Opposing Opinions column. They’ve dueled over expansions and squared off over cooperative games, but never have the stakes rested on the shoulders of a single man, a lone designer, a polarizing figure, a man ahead of his time but forever outrunning his demons. Alright, maybe a bit melodramatic, this isn’t William Wallace after all, but then again we are talking about the one, the only, the brilliant, the flawed – Martin Wallace.
Tom Rosen: Wallace, The Genius Hummingbird
Wallace is a singularly impressive game designer. His catalogue of designs boasts heavyweight after heavyweight, deep and complex games that burn your brain and inspire you to keep coming back for more. His output has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years with the formation of Treefrog and the breadth of his designs and themes is hard to beat.
There is a catch, there’s always a catch. There seems to be a tendency toward quantity over quality, which is really a shame because the quality is so good considering how large his output is. My issue is that this suggests to me that the quality could be truly amazing if the quantity were just scaled back a bit. I’d prefer a few particularly great games over the many good games that we’re seeing. The potential seems to be there for some polished masterpieces if a bit more time were devoted to fine-tuning many of these games.
I just can’t rely on Wallace to playtest something sufficiently to work out the kinks. None of his games suggest a significant amount of refinement, even though most include very compelling concepts. I’m not just talking about the controversial A Few Acres of Snow. I mean Liberte, Byzantium, Last Train to Wensleydale, God’s Playground, some of my favorite Wallace games, they’re all really interesting and I enjoy them a great deal. But they’re rough around the edges.
I know some have said, like good friend Larry Levy, that Wallace takes on more challenging projects with loads of new innovations, and that his games get a lot more scrutiny because of his popularity, which are good points. However, I’d say that Vlaada Chvatil and Stefan Feld take on complex projects and are subjected to just as much scrutiny and yet they still manage to deliver games that are cleaner, more refined, polished. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Wallace. I’m always the one clamoring to get Byzantium or Wensleydale to the table, but I can’t help feeling that he has so much untapped potential. If he would focus his efforts on fewer projects, take more time to play test, spend more time refining the rules, he could be capable of producing some truly incredible gems.
Larry likes to talk sports so let’s go down that path. As Larry has said, there’s nothing wrong with a designer who swings for singles and has a high batting average, like Kramer whose games are obviously more polished, but less ambitious and rarely break new ground these days, according to Larry. But Wallace is the fellow who swings for home runs and strikes out more often. That’s a great analogy, although I do take exception to the slight I perceive to Kramer (especially because I know that Larry lacks the proper appreciation for El Grande and Java, but let’s not get distracted; we’ll save that for another article). I’d start though by noting that Wallace is not the only slugger out there. Rudiger Dorn gave us home run after home run with Traders of Genoa, Goa, and Louis XIV (perhaps even Arkadia in my mind). Here even Larry would admit in his own words that Dorn was a “young god, no doubt.”
Chvatil is another designer who swings for home runs and while he sometimes misses, his misses don’t seem like their problem is sloppiness and being rushed, as is the issue with Wallace. There’s something to be said for taking on just one or two projects at a time and focusing your efforts. While Larry would point out that Chvatil produces far fewer games, I’d gladly take fewer and better any day. Chvatil seems detail-oriented, whereas it seems clear that Wallace doesn’t really care for the details. He’s got great ideas, but seeing them through to their conclusion must be too mundane when it’s more interesting to move on to the next exciting project.
Larry would have you believe that Wallace’s games, like A Few Acres of Snow, are incredibly innovative. I won’t sit here and tell you that there’s a deficit of innovation coming out of the Treefrog shop, although I would note that I’ve seen things like the Reserve in Odin’s Ravens and the Governer in its previous incarnation as a Chapel. Larry would go on to argue that Wallace is on a hot streak that rivals Knizia in the late nineties. But Through the Desert, Ra, Tigris & Euphrates, Stephensons Rocket, these are polished complete games, classics even. They can stand the test of time without flaws and fuzzy rules standing in the way. I’d say instead that Wallace has the potential to rival Knizia in the late nineties, but he’s too busy with too many different irons in the fire to refine a few of his grand ideas into true masterpieces.
In discussions of the rules changes to A Few Acres of Snow, I’ve hypothesized that they seem to create new issues in attempting to fix an existing one. The unintended byproducts of strengthening raids and being unable to reserve locations appear to have ripple effects that weaken other aspects of the game even as they attempt to fix one dominant strategy. Given the fact that the game was essentially released in beta and apparently needed a version 2.0, I’m not yet convinced that the changes aren’t simply as problematic as the original. Larry would accuse me of assuming that Wallace is a sloppy designer, but I’d say that I see a very talented designer who has so many different promising ideas and projects, and simply not enough hours in the day to focus on any one of them. He is hummingbird that I wish would try sitting still on one game for more time without flitting to new games quite so quickly.
While Larry says that he’d prefer someone who produces 2 good games and 2 bad games in a year over the designer who produces 1 good game in a year, and that preference makes some sense at first blush, I’d say that the existence of the bad ones makes me wish that time was spent polishing the good ones, making them great ones. Ultimately, the problem is that there seems like a lot of untapped potential in many Wallace games that time and polishing would really bring out. What’s so frustrating is that his designs feel like almost-classics, they’re almost-there and almost-finished. To be clear, while some might think that this is my condemnation of Wallace games, I’d characterize it more as a lament — a lament for the genius hummingbird.
Larry: The Proof is in the Pudding
Tom, we both agree that Martin Wallace is a brilliant designer with many wonderful ideas. Could some of his games be even better if he spent more time on them? Possibly. But you know what? That wouldn’t put enough food on the Wallace table. Martin makes his living solely by designing games now and putting out one or two games a year just won’t cut it–at least not the kind of complex games that Wallace is best known for, which usually are focused on a limited segment of the hobby. The economic realities of a professional game designer have to be recognized in a critique like this one.
But one thing I notice in your article is a shortage of details. Which games are so sloppily designed? What are the issues with them? I know you have some issues, but unless you get down to specifics, you’re not really making your case.
Fortunately, I’ve seen very few of these problems in the Wallace designs that have appeared since he switched his company name to Treefrog. Actually, I’ll start just before that with the last Warfrog game, Brass. Here’s my feelings on the recent Wallace games that I’ve tried:
- Brass: Terrific game, very tight, very unforgiving. The only thing I would change is the rulebook, but the gameplay is marvelous.
- After the Flood: Interesting game, but ultimately didn’t quite work for me. I can think of a few things I might personally change, but I’m not sure there’s any real design flaws here. It’s just a little more of a wargame than I like.
- Steel Driver: Very good game, wonderful end game, very interesting auction mechanic. Wouldn’t change a thing.
- Tinners’ Trail: Another fine game, less complex than most Wallace designs. The only flaw to me is the VP system, which hardly ever affects the game. It’s not a big deal, just unnecessary. The occasional complaints about the random ore prices are overblown, in my opinion, and almost all of the issues can be handled with a simple fix, if one wants to.
- Toledo: Designed for Kosmos. Nice little game. Quite a bit of luck, but an entertaining middleweight that accomplishes pretty much what it sets out to do.
- Automobile: One of my all-time favorites. A brilliant design. Wouldn’t change a thing.
- God’s Playground: Too much of an “experience game” for my tastes. I’d have to play it more to be able to critique it, but it’s clearly not aimed at me.
- Last Train to Wensleydale: Very clever system. May not be as tight as I’d like, but I’m not sure if that’s true. The complaints about the “Valley strategy” don’t seem to hold water, in my experience. I’d certainly change the physical design of the board, which is just awful, but the gameplay is quite solid.
- Rise of Empires: Designed for Phalanx. Played once and didn’t care for it. Went on way too long and seemed to have some issues, as is often the case for non-Warfrog/Treefrog Wallace titles. Doesn’t really fit with Tom’s criticisms, IMO, since I think the problems are more fundamental and not just a few tweaks. I should note, however, that many people love the system.
- Steam: Designed for Mayfair. Very successful remake of Age of Steam, although it’s too forgiving for my tastes. However, the goal of both Martin and Mayfair was to come up with a more accessible game system and in that, they certainly succeeded. So it’s hard for me to criticize the game, particularly given its popularity.
- Age of Industry: Another very successful remake, this time of Brass. I’m not sure I’d change too much about this.
- London: Very good and accessible design. To my mind, the only design flaw is in the 2-player game, where a reduction in the number of boroughs probably should have been investigated. The so-called “borough buying” strategy seems to be based on small sample sizes and misunderstandings and, in the opinion of the playtesters (and me), just isn’t dominant.
- A Few Acres of Snow: Wonderfully innovative and engrossing game. Unfortunately, broken, but only for those familiar with deck-builders (which does not include me). It seems that neither Wallace nor his playtesters were too familiar with this genre, which might explain how the “Halifax Hammer” escaped their notice. Even though the game still works for me, any criticisms of the game are quite justified.
- Aeroplanes: Designed for Mayfair. Way too much luck for my tastes and not that enjoyable in any event. This is a game where I would change a lot and not just tweak a few things. However, quite a few people who share my tastes love the game, so perhaps it just isn’t for me.
To my way of thinking, there’s very little to criticize in Wallace’s output from 2007 to 2011. I’m sure I could find a few things that I might change, but that’s true of just about any game, even those I love. Wallace may never get back to the level of excellence he established during those years (he seems to be trending toward lighter games, as so often happens when a designer turns professional), but for that earlier period, I see a whole lot of brilliance and very few flaws.
Tom: Who’s Counting
I think you just made my argument for me. Of the 14 games that you listed, you mentioned problems with 10 of them. I only counted 4 that you said you wouldn’t want to change in some way. You mentioned games with terrible rulebooks, terrible board design, and even a game that is flat out broken. You mentioned games that are too forgiving or not tight enough, have flawed victory point systems, have way too much luck, went on way too long, and didn’t scale well for player count. As you and I acknowledge, these are not bad games, they’re good games, some very good, but not great. None of them quite reach the heights that they seem capable of.
You make an interesting point about putting food on the table and not one that I’d really considered. As someone who just plays these games and is not part of the industry, I focus on the game itself and not so much on outside issues or factors. You made me wonder whether that was fair, but then I began thinking about movie reviews or book reviews. Directors and authors also need to make money, but I can’t imagine a movie reviewer or book reviewer cutting someone slack and accepting flaws in a product because its creator needed to quickly release the product to make money. I understand that the analogy doesn’t take into account that the board game industry is a small field with small margins and that full-time designers need to make ends meet. On the other hand, there are small independent directors and authors that need to be able to stand behind their work and not make excuses based on being rushed to get to market.
You want more specifics? Take a look at the last page of the Last Train to Wensleydale rulebook. It says: “The game you see here is almost identical to the very first play test copy.” Seriously?! A game this complex and involved ended up almost identical to the first play test copy? That is absurdly hard to fathom. This is a game that I enjoy a lot, but there are lots of elements that need attention to detail in a design like this. The range of the profit/loss track, the number of turn order tracks, the adjacencies of board regions, and on and on. Without really thinking these things through and testing extensively, I’m afraid you’re left with a compelling idea that will merit a number of plays for several years, but probably won’t be given much thought or attention years down the road.
If that’s not the goal then c’est la vie. But I would think part of the goal is hopefully posterity and longevity of relevance. Not everyone has the potential to make designs that are relevant for decades or more to come, but what I find so frustrating here is that Wallace has that potential. So much potential, and it’s being used for quantity rather than quality. That’s his choice to make of course, but I can’t imagine that most gamers wouldn’t find it similarly frustrating. Wouldn’t we all prefer a few great games to really sink our teeth into over lots of good games to try in passing?
Larry: The Argument Stands
Tom, the only argument I’m making is mine. Are you trying to tell me that you have lots of games that you wouldn’t change anything on? Even the layout of the rules or the price of a building? I sure don’t. Even with my all-time favorites, there are a few small points that I wish would have been done a little differently. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t great games.
And speak for yourself if you don’t think any of the games I’ve listed are great. Brass is great. Automobile is insanely great. Few Acres, for all of its flaws, is great. Steel Driver, Tinners’, London, and Age of Industry were all among my top 3 games in the year they were released. That’s unbelievable output for a four-year period from one designer. Wallace was the preeminent designer in the world for me during that time and there was no one remotely close.
And I really don’t want to be critical, but the best you can do is the fact that the Wensleydale final product closely resembles the first version? In other words, you’re blaming Wallace for getting it right the first time? Look, if you think there are things that could have been better, that’s fine, but obviously, the playtesters didn’t agree with you. Wallace said almost the exact same thing about Automobile and that game is fantastic. Brass, on the other hand, was a real struggle to get to its final form. There’s no pattern in how the gestation period of a game relates to its final quality; some games just take longer to perfect. But it’s hardly a bad thing when a game works well on its first playtest.
This whole argument comes down to a difference of opinion on the quality of Wallace’s games during the period under question. You think his games had untapped potential that none of them quite reached; I think half of the ones I tried were indeed great, with their potential fully achieved, a fantastic percentage. There may have been a kludgy rule here, an ugly game board or a poorly laid out rulebook there, but those paled in comparison to the quality of the games. Because Treefrog is a one-man shop, the physical quality of the games may not always have been top notch (much like other one designer companies, such as Friedemann Friese’s 2-F Spiele). But the ideas in the games and their execution was unparalleled. Wallace may not have been producing perfect games, but his games had no more flaws than his contemporaries. The most important thing was that he was far and away my favorite designer over that period of time. I can live with something a little short of perfection when the games are that good.