Opposing Opinions: The Brilliant / Flawed Wallace

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:

2007

  • Brass:  Terrific game, very tight, very unforgiving.  The only thing I would change is the rulebook, but the gameplay is marvelous.

2008

  • 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.

2009

  • 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.

2010

  • 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.

2011

  • 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.

2012

  • 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.

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19 Responses to Opposing Opinions: The Brilliant / Flawed Wallace

  1. Paul Lister says:

    Great debate! Flawed genius? Probably. But the genius for me is that Martin;s games are theme led. He starts with a subject matter and builds a game around it. Sometimes those games have rough edges . But that’ s why I love his games – he tries to engage his subject matter in a way that the gamer can respond to. This is a personal preference; Feld by comparison makes great games but they don’t engage with the subject matter – the themes are just vehicles for a game idea.

    • Ben (chally) says:

      A comment after my own heart, Paul. In other corners of the internets, I have been attempting to advocate for a conception of theme as “subject matter” or “substance.” Roughly described, which is really the best I can do, it is a measure of how well the game replicates, as a playable experience, particular decision points that define the thematic subject matter — those decisions that make the subject worth exploring. Wallace, more so than any other designer I’ve encountered, is able to excel on this criterion, in some cases due to the very “rough edges” that Tom laments. As a result his games overwhelmingly produce game experiences I want to inhabit. By contrast, mechanics-first designers like Stefan Feld leave me cold precisely because their games feel so obviously artificial; like solving fabricated math problems in your spare time, those games — however polished — present a challenge without any purpose.

      • huzonfirst says:

        Believe it or not, I agree with both of you. I’m perfectly happy with mechanics-led designs (for example, I love Feld), but tying a game’s mechanics to a well implemented and interesting theme definitely enhances the play experience. One of the things that makes Wallace great is that he does such a great job of straddling the two competing models of mechnics-first games and theme-first games.

    • Tom Rosen says:

      That’s a very good point that I forgot to mention Paul. One of Wallace’s big strengths is finding a unique theme and then building a game around that theme… one in which the theme clearly came first and therefore shaped the design (e.g., God’s Playground). That method has its pluses and minuses though of course, which probably accounts for a lot of my issues with rough edges. Feld is definitely a good contrast because the mechanisms are solid but often feel soulless when surrounded by a theme that feels relatively arbitrary. Of course I disagree with Larry (what else is new?) because I don’t think Wallace straddles this line, but rather is at one end of the spectrum on this dichotomy.

      • huzonfirst says:

        I think Wallace straddles it when compared to the true end of the spectrum, which would probably be the classic Ameritrash design: theme first, mechanics second (an emphasis which definitely shows in the final product). I’m curious, Tom–which designer who clearly works from a strong theme would you say does a better job of “straddling” the spectrum than Wallace? Chvatil is about the only one I can think of.

  2. peer says:

    I thnk the whole Wallace-Issue started when Treefrog was still Warfrog. A lot of his games back then seems unfinished, unpolished. He earned a reputation of being a tardy designer back then.
    But now I dont see it anymore. If it werent for that time back then I dont think anyone would accuse him of being unfishinied or tardy nowadays.
    Every designer has stronger and weaker designs, and every designer has to stand against critizism and Wallace especially, because he has such a huge following and he has this special nische of thematc games with Euomechanics which nearly nobody except him seems to occupy.

    • huzonfirst says:

      For the most part, I agree with you, Peer (Few Acres is an obvious exception). You’ll notice that I focused on the Treefrog games in my list; that’s because I didn’t really care for early, pre-2000 Wallace, and still had some issues with the remainder of the Warfrog line. But the period extending from Brass to London is fabulous, with very few concerns.

  3. Dale Yu says:

    I’m with Tom here. I’d prefer fewer games that are better developed… When Martin gets it right, those games are classics!

  4. Eric Brosius says:

    For me, many of Martin’s games are well worth playing, but aren’t replayable enough to buy (in part because of the issues noted above). So I tend to play others’ copies.

  5. Jacob says:

    Wallace has made some of my favourite games. I’ve played all of them since Age of Steam. But Old Men of the Forest might be one of the worst games I’ve ever played. I wrote that off as a charitable donation (which it partly was). It also signalled to me the “real” Wallace might never come back.

  6. James says:

    Fun write up, overall, i also agree that i would prefer quality over quantity.
    i dont think however that the Vlaada is at all a good example of this. I would always be willing try either of these designers games, but i would never blind buy from either of them. In my opinion, a great designer or true (brand) loyalty is best proven with said blind buys.

    Even with some the misses Wallace is awesome, Brass and Runebound are two of my all time favorites, with Vlaada, i always love what he’s trying to do and the challenge his games are trying to overcome and i love TTA’s and what’s not to like about TravelBlog…with that said though they also have given me some of my biggest disappointments. Automobile was one of the least fun experiences i’ve had playing a game, and still trying to make my way through the Mage Knight rulebook and wondering why i bought ‘another’ deck builder, as i really dont like deckbuilders.

    WIth that said, of course i’m super excited to see what games these two guys come up with next.

  7. Craig Massey says:

    I have to agree with Tom here. I have a huge stack of Wallace’s games, most have been played once or twice and elicited the same reaction – really interesting concept/theme/mechanics, but ultimately missing that something that gets the game to the table on a regular basis. It’s almost as if I buy Wallace’s games as a study in design rather than a regularly played favorite.

    Thinking about his output there are three games of his that I’ve played more than five times – Age of Steam, Brass, and London. Given his output in the last 10 years, that really feels like more misses than hits. Of course this won’t stop me from buying his future output – though it is pretty much limited to Treefrog designs.

    • huzonfirst says:

      With regard to the comment about Treefrog designs, Craig: several of us have commented on the fact that we’ve had much more luck with the Treefrog/Warfrog Wallace than when other publishers do his games. That may just be because he keeps the best ideas for his own company, although it also might reflect that most other companies won’t take on his more complex games. Either way, it’s been a noticeable pattern over the years (with Winsome being the early exception).

      This is also an interesting counter to Brian’s contention in the next comment. If Wallace’s big problem was development, you’d think his game with other publishers would be the superior ones. But I don’t think that’s the case at all. At any rate, I don’t really think that Martin’s games are lacking development–in fact, I think overall that they’re more of a finished product than those of most designers. Certainly Brass, Tinners’, Steel Driver, and Automobile, all released over a two-year period, are superbly finished games and each was released by Martin’s own company.

      • Craig says:

        I do think that development is the biggest issue with Wallace games. The fact that many of us are mostly interested in the Warfrog/Treefrog designs doesn’t mean that those are the best developed though. I do think they are just his best/most interesting ideas. Some get polished and given to other companies for wider distribution and others do not.

        Of your short list Larry, Tinner’s Trail, Steel Driver, and Automobile were released by other companies. Brass was not and I would argue was not quite finished. I think Age of Industry is the refinement/further development that Brass needed. Whether or not it is a better game is debatable. Sometimes developed does not equal better. Having play tested several Alan Moon titles, I have seen what developers can do to make games worse.

        None of this changes the fact that when suggest a Wallace game to play that the reaction is something along the lines of “hmm, possibly, what else is available?” Many more misses than hits.

        • huzonfirst says:

          Craig, Tinners’, Steel Driver, and Automobile were originally released by Treefrog. AFAIK, there was no further development when they were republished by other companies, other than some reworked graphics. Unless your main concern is appearance (and there’s no consensus that the graphical changes were all improvements), these have to be considered Treefrog games and all of them are highly rated.

          Obviously, much of this discussion comes down to taste. But I think many would argue with your contention that Brass is an unfinished game; I know I would. It’s been in the top 10 on the Geek for many years, so clearly the game works for a large number of people. AoI’s alterations were primarily to make the game more accessible and more amenable to expansions. I believe these changes met their goals, but while some people prefer Brass and others prefer AoI, I think they’re basically two flavors of the same concept. I don’t see that AoI provided anything that was “needed” in Brass; it just represents a slightly different approach.

    • Tom Rosen says:

      Great point Craig! I think you stated more clearly part of what I was trying to get at. Many of us buy Wallace’s games as a “study in design” rather than as regularly played favorites. They do have interesting concepts/themes/mechanisms as you say, but are missing something that would get them actually played regularly it seems.

  8. gamingleet says:

    I don’t know whether it is finances, personality, or just not finding the right person, but I don’t think Martin Wallace’s problem is Martin Wallace’s game ideas or dedication, so much as that he really needs to be paired with an awesome developer. I agree with all the criticisms, but I think that the solution is probably not Martin Wallace spending all that much more time on his designs. Rather, I think he’d do impressive things paired with the right person who can help polish off the rough edges where they occur and ensure they are more consistently great products.

    • Clyde says:

      Strange that you make no mention of the Discworld game released a few years ago. I snow played it a bunch of times and find it to be one of MW’s more developed releases.

      I do think the main problem is lack of development. He needs a Dale Yu-like person in his life; if there had been Acres might’ve deserved the awards it wound up winning anyway.

  9. AD says:

    Wallace has made a flawed game in Discworld but my wife asks to play it every single night…so that alone makes me adore his work! And who says A Few Acres is “broken”? Bunch of rubbish, that one!

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