Oh the glorious games that come out of Hollandspiele! It almost numbs the mind and makes me giddy all at the same time. While at WBC in August, we met up with Master Tom Russell, the head bottle washer at Hollandspiele (Tom refers to himself in this way often) and got to try out an upcoming negotiation style game called Westphalia. The game is a very interesting approach to the dealings of various nations during the Thirty Years War and Eighty Years War which both end in 1648. We reached out to Tom and he has provided us with a very in-depth look into this game and the design.
Grant: What is Westphalia about and what is the history of the time period? What was your inspiration for designing a game centered around negotiation and diplomacy?
Tom: The game is set in the last few years of the Thirty Years War and the Eighty Years War, and it is primarily about the peace talks that ended those wars in 1648. The short version of the Eighty Years War is that it was how the Dutch Republic won its independence from Spain. The short version of the Thirty Years War is that it is an irreducibly complex multi-party conflict centered around the irreducibly complex Holy Roman Empire. It is hard to undersell the horrors of the Thirty Years War in particular. There were millions dead, many of them civilians. The land was ravaged and destitute. Everyone involved ran up massive debts. And so at a certain point, everyone’s just tired and broke and wants the thing to end, so they start negotiations for a peace settlement.
These peace talks, some of which are held in Westphalia, begin in 1643 and don’t wrap up until 1648. Partially this is because of how many parties were involved – there are over a hundred polities each with their own agenda and histories, and everyone wants to arrive at a settlement that will be favorable (or at least won’t be unfavorable) to their specific wants and needs. But while these talks were going on, they were still fighting the war – armies were still marching, battles were still fought. Because an achievement on the battlefield is going to translate to leverage at the table – my army has just taken such-and-such a city, and if you want it back, you better give me what I want. And maybe you stall and draw the thing out hoping your army will take it back, so that you have leverage over me now.
None of this fighting at this point is really to win the war, because the thing was more-or-less decided years ago. It’s just to eke out a political advantage. And that’s sad and horrifying but also very interesting, and it was that essential tension that really drew me to the subject.
Grant: What sources did you consult about the politics, alliances and disposition of the nations involved? Which of those sources would you recommend as a must read on the subject?
Tom: There were quite a few, but hands-down the most useful and readable was Peter H. Wilson’s book Europe’s Tragedy: A New History of the Thirty Years War (2011). He spends a great deal of time laying out the groundwork – explaining the foundations and origins of this impossibly complicated conflict. Even just within the Holy Roman Empire itself, you have this complicated and contradictory thing made up of hundreds of polities each with their own rights, histories, and ambitions. And then you add Denmark to the mix. And Sweden. And France. And all this is complicated by Spain’s war with the Dutch, and Spain’s war with France in Italy, and the Dutch war with Portugal, and to a degree even England’s war with itself. And while it isn’t a strictly confessional conflict as it is sometimes portrayed, all this is still informed by confessional tensions. And questions of authority, and sovereignty, and money, and power politics. And I think Wilson pulls all this together in a way that’s really quite remarkable.
Grant: The game is designed for exactly 6 players. Why is this the only option? Did you consider other player counts to widen the appeal of the game?
Tom: It became apparent very early on that what we have here is a very delicate sort of ecosystem, with each power potentially acting as an ally to some powers and as a counter to others. Remove one from the equation and it all falls apart. Originally I had seven powers, for seven players, but reduced this to six when Mary pointed out to me that many game groups naturally top out at six. And of course six turned out to be the right number, because when I removed the seventh faction – it was Saxony, for those that are curious – it solved a lot of problems I was having with the design.
But going less than six was impossible. In the Holy Roman Empire, it’s Austria and Bavaria fighting against France and Sweden. In the Spanish Netherlands, it’s France and the Dutch against Spain. If you remove Bavaria, for example, then suddenly Austria is extremely vulnerable militarily. But Bavaria is also more of a “frenemy” to Austria, because everything that Bavaria wants to achieve, enlarging its own power and territory, it does at Austria’s expense – Austria basically being a synecdoche for the concept of centralized Imperial authority more generally. You lose Bavaria, and you lose that. If you cut the Dutch, why is Spain there, and vice-versa. The French position is defined by the fact that it is spreading itself a little thin – it’s fighting three wars and propping up two allies – remove any of the other powers, and then you’re no longer representing the French situation. And for me that’s a very interesting position to play, a very challenging one.
And because your allies aren’t necessarily full allies – Bavaria is as much a rival to Austria as it is a friend – it doesn’t make sense to allow players to “double up”, playing two or more factions, because that’s going to dramatically skew and warp the incentives for each side. Especially because, at its heart, it is a free form sort of negotiation game, with everyone – friends and enemies alike – trading with everyone else. If I’m playing two factions, then probably those factions will always agree to whatever trade I come up with for them, and there again the whole thing falls apart.
So early on, I knew that this would be a game with an inflexible player count, and I wasn’t really interested in trying to widen the appeal or come up with bots or anything like that, because that would turn the game into something it’s not.
So early on, I knew that this would be a game with an inflexible player count, and I wasn’t really interested in trying to widen the appeal or come up with bots or anything like that, because that would turn the game into something it’s not.
Grant: Are you concerned about how this restriction will affect the sales of the game?
Tom: A little? But also not really?
I’ll be the first to admit that I have the tremendous luxury of basically never having to care how well a game sells, because our model dramatically reduces our financial risk. We only have to sell a small number of copies to break even, and we’re essentially guaranteed to sell at least that number of copies. So, if people stay away in droves, yeah, I’ll be bummed out by that, but the success of our company isn’t dependent on the success of this one game – we literally have fifty other titles in our catalogue, and we publish a dozen or more each year. I’ll have made the game that I wanted to make, and if the people who like it like it, it doesn’t matter how many people are in that group or how few.
I like to say that the model allows us to publish with impunity, and this is an example of that. It lets us do this weird and very uncommercial game, a game that no one else would be crazy enough to publish.
Really, my major concern isn’t “how many people are going to buy this” so much as it is, “how often are people who buy this going to be able to play this?” Because you need six players, and that generally takes some coordination and planning. There was a playtest at WBC that almost wasn’t because we were looking for just one more player. Thank goodness this really cool guy that writes for something called The Players’ Aid stood up and said, “Hey, we need just one more player!” [Yeah, my big mouth has helped me out only a few times in life and this was one of those times…thankfully!]
And also those six players need to like negotiation games – because if people aren’t into that, the game is likely to break down. It is mathematically impossible to win the game without trading something with someone at sometime. And it’s on a fairly nerdy historical subject. All of that narrows the number of people who are going to be down for it, and makes it harder to get on the table.
On the flipside, mechanically the game is pretty simple. There’s some asymmetry in the player positions, and competent play requires an awareness of that, but it’s not asymmetrical in the sense of “I do this on my turn, while you do that on your turn” – the core of it is more-or-less the same for everyone. And the game takes about two hours to play. By the standards of games like Diplomacy or Here I Stand or Dune, games that can take all day to play and that are generally seen as games that you really need to experience at the full player count, two hours and a fairly simple ruleset is not such a big thing to ask.
It might be that the game ends up being “a convention game”, one that doesn’t see as much play at someone’s weekly game night, and you know, if that’s what happens, I’m really okay with that. Again, Mary and I have that luxury, which other, more traditional, publishers don’t.
Grant: As you briefly mentioned, the design is very asymmetrical with each nation having a different set of victory conditions. How difficult was this to design and balance?
Tom: It’s certainly a lot of work, but it’s not as difficult as one might think. Most of the games I’ve done are for only two players, and the player positions in those games tend to be very asymmetric, with different strengths and weaknesses that are representative of the historical actors and the historical situation. But I’ve also done a number of economics games for three or more players. And those games are usually about emergent alliances – about the relationships between players that arise over the course of playing the game. But they’re also about what you could call emergent asymmetries – player positions and incentives become highly differentiated.
So in a way I’m taking elements from both disciplines and mixing them together. The asymmetries here are more hard-coded than in my other multiplayer games, just because of the historical situation that’s being represented. But in a very real way, it was a matter of thinking about how each player can relate to each other player, and what those relationships mean for the game as a whole. So I’m not sure if designing it is really any harder than designing either of those other two types of games – there’s just a lot more of it to do.
As for balancing it, it’s actually much easier to balance a multiplayer game than a two-hander, because in a way they’re balanced by the players: each of them has a responsibility as it were to counter each other, and if someone wipes the floor with everybody else, it’s because they were a better player, a better negotiator, and I think that’s perfectly acceptable. That said, Westphalia is kind of a special case, because it’s generally not a game with only one winner – it can have up to five. So I might let you “run away with” the game so long as it means that I’m also winning, and that someone else at the table isn’t. Beyond that, two of the powers have victory conditions that require victory for two other powers – which is a different sort of experience than you get in a “bash the leader” style multiplayer game.
Grant: Can you explain the six different victory conditions? What was your historical basis in assigning each to the nation responsible?
Tom: So, all six victory conditions revolve around Debt. There’s no money in the game, only Debt, and you only seem to get more of it, and you don’t want any of it. The things you do in the game reduce your Debt, and then often you will compare some of those same accomplishments to the Debt that remains to see if you won.
So, for example, Bavaria is hardcore Catholic and independent, very much into marginalizing the heretics and maintaining its own autonomy (achieving “Liberties”). So at the end of the game, one of the ways they’re going to reduce their Debt is by the number of areas they’ve forcibly converted back to the one true faith, another way is by the territory they rule, another way is by the number of Liberties at the end of the game. Then they’re going to compare the Debt they have left to the sum of the Liberties plus their territorial gains, and if that total is higher than their Debt, they win. They also need to ensure that there’s more Liberty than Tolerance for Protestants – again, they’re not a fan of the Reformation.
Spain is a little simpler: they’re going to start the game with 20 Debt, and need to end the game with less than 25. They are basically always on the verge of financial disaster, and Spain is the position to play if you like terrible things happening to you all the time.
Austria, which again stands in for Imperial authority within the HRE, has basically lost the war and needs to give away enough stuff to its enemies and its allies to make them happy enough to finally end the darn thing. But they don’t want to concede too much. And so they have these special goal cards with Thresholds on them – if they’re past these Thresholds, they lose. So there’s a limit to how much Debt they can have, a limit to how much territory they can give away, a limit to how many Liberties and how much Tolerance they can allow.
They need to be within these limits, but they also need to ensure victory conditions are met for Bavaria (one of their subjects) and Spain (their cousins). And even though Austria cares if Bavaria or Spain wins, Bavaria and Spain don’t really care if Austria wins.
The Dutch Republic wants to make money – wants to focus on trade. While they’re at war with Spain, they have a limited ability to bring Commerce Cards into the game; if they make an early peace with Spain, it becomes easier for them to do this. These cards don’t have any value unless the Dutch player trades them to another player – so long as another player holds them, then both players will reduce their Debt by the amount on the card. At the end of the game, the Dutch player’s trade agreements have to be greater than their final debt. It’s one of the easier positions to play, and is more trade-focused rather than straightforward bashy-bashy march-march army stuff.
Sweden is in it for territory, and for increasing Tolerance for Protestants. So as you might expect, they’re going to compare their final Debt to their territorial gains and the total Tolerance in the Holy Roman Empire.
And then we come to France. France at this point is playing a very subtle and high stakes game of power politics, trying to expand its own power and influence at the expense of the Habsburgs in Spain and Austria. This is the brainchild of Cardinal Richelieu, who is dead by the time the game begins. France, which like the red eminence is Catholic, is throwing its support behind two Protestant powers – that’s the Swedes and the Dutch – in wars against two of its fellow Catholics, the aforementioned Habsburgs. And as part of this, France is essentially fighting in three wars – the Thirty Years War in the Holy Roman Empire, the Eighty Years War in the Spanish Netherlands, and the Franco-Spanish War which at this point is mainly being fought by proxies in Italy. And all of this of course is very expensive, and spreads the French and their considerable resources a little thin.
So the French goal is to have less than 20 Debt at the end of the game, and to ensure that Sweden and the Dutch Republic meet their victory conditions. And as is the case with Austria, while France needs to make sure its allies win, its allies aren’t necessarily interested in returning the favor.
Grant: Of the various victory conditions which in your opinion is the most difficult to reach?
Tom: It’s probably going to be France. It’s the only one of the six powers that’s involved in both theaters, and the only one that has significant relationships with all of the other five. For example, Bavaria has this weird frenemy thing going on with Austria, and is fighting France and Sweden, but has more limited interactions with Spain and the Dutch Republic. They probably will make some trades, but they’re going to be more situational, and Bavaria is probably less concerned with what they’ve got going on. But France is always going to have to be involved in everybody else’s business, and they have to strike this very tricky balancing act, doing all these things while trying not to go broke.
Grant: The map is broken into two distinct theaters of war. What are the theaters and why did you feel this was the best way to handle this element of the design? What advantage to the design did the two theaters of war add?
Tom: One theater is the Holy Roman Empire (where the Thirty Years War is fought) and one the Spanish Netherlands (where the Eighty Years War is fought). Now, geographically, it wouldn’t have been difficult to cover that area in a single connected contiguous map, but then I’d need all sorts of special rules so as to keep say Sweden out of the Netherlands, or the Dutch out of Germany. This just isn’t something that would have happened, especially at this point in the conflict – no one is looking to open up a new theater or create new headaches for themselves. So keeping the two theaters separate doesn’t open that whole can of worms.
Early on, the military element of the game went through a few different iterations – there was a version, for example, with no map at all, and another where the war in the Netherlands was abstracted away as a track. And a lot of that was about figuring out how much weight to give the negotiations and how much the military stuff. Once I settled on using the area map, with the two theaters, it gave the military element of the game the proper emphasis, and more strongly connected it to the negotiations: the action on the map informs the trading, and the trading the action on the map.
Grant: How do players use their armies in the game?
Tom: Essentially you’re marching from area to area on your turn, with the option to convert enemy territory to your own side, garrisoning it by expending a unit. Naturally the enemy doesn’t like this, and may attempt to intercept and force a battle.
Grant: How are battles determined?
Tom: Assuming the defender accepts battle, they’re going to have combat strength equal to double the number of units in the army. The attacker’s strength is equal to the number of units in their army – natural, not doubled – plus a 2d6 roll. High total wins, defender wins ties, with both sides suffering losses equal to the lower of the two die results. The caveat is that if the attacker rolls doubles, then they lose regardless of how the numbers come out – the battle is a disaster or blunder. In that case, only the attacker suffers casualties. It is suggested that every time there is a battle, the other five players all chant “don’t roll doubles” at the attacker – this is scientifically proven to alter the die roll.
Grant: Is it really smart to wage war or are there better uses for your troops?
Tom: So, battles can be very risky. You can sometimes have very high losses, probably in excess of your ability to recruit new troops, which is going to make your army even more vulnerable the next time around. Losing a battle also means losing Prestige, which negatively impacts your ability to slow down your accrual of Debt. These are all good reasons not to accept battle when you are attacked, and refusing battle isn’t something you attempt to do with a die roll; it’s something you can do more-or-less automatically provided you have somewhere to slink away to.
But winning a battle is also how you gain Prestige, and how you render your opponent more vulnerable. And sometimes there’s territory you don’t want to give up, so maybe instead of refusing you’ll accept that battle.
Again, these battles are generally made possible by a non-active player “intercepting” your army while it’s trying to capture territory. And the thing about interception is, it’s going to end your turn. Either you fight a battle, after which your turn ends, or you refuse, after which your turn ends. So if I’m intercepting, that’s a way for me to curtail your operations in the area. If I do that when my army is much stronger than yours, maybe you won’t accept battle as the odds aren’t in your favor, so it might be “safe” for me to intercept. That might mean that I let you convert a few points of territory first, as every new point of territory is going to cost you a unit from your army. Or maybe I really want a battle; well, you’re more likely to accept a battle when the odds appear to be almost even. Or maybe I want you to think I want a battle when I don’t.
So the military element is very cat-and-mouse, and if you’re fighting a battle every single turn, you’re not going to have much of a fighting force to work with. Conversely if you run from every battle, you’re not going to gain a lot of Prestige, and not going to be properly interfering with your opponents. You have to choose your battles very carefully, and make calculated risks – which is more akin to how commanders in the field actually operate.
So, is it smart to wage war? Sometimes. Any commander who knew what he was doing also knew that in any given battle, there was a chance they might basically lose their entire army. So, what objectives are worth that risk?
Grant: Debt is a trade-able resource in the game. What does this represent and how is it used in the design?
Tom: This is a generalized representation of sovereign debt. Everyone is borrowing heavily to pay for these wars, and in a sense they keep fighting the wars because of their debt. Two examples that will make this clear are Spain and Sweden.
So the thing about Spain in this period is that they are basically completely broke, but pretending that they’re not. Spain has so much debt that their total annual income, including all their riches from the New World, is not sufficient to pay their interest, let alone the principal. And so they have to take out new loans to pay the interest on their existing loans. At one point, in order to hide the fact that they were broke, Spain was spending extravagantly, wasting money on ridiculous luxuries – so that their debtors would think that everything was hunky-dory and keep approving loans. And of course they needed to take out loans to fund that.
This whole thing was built on Spain’s reputation, and that’s why they fought the Dutch for eighty years. The Dutch Republic had essentially won their independence by 1609. A temporary truce was agreed for the next twelve years. At the end of the truce, Spain started the war back up. Not because they intended to reconquer the Dutch – they knew they had lost, and that at the end of the war, the Dutch Republic would still exist and be free. They just wanted to achieve a settlement that allowed them to minimize their humiliation, keeping their reputation and their line of credit intact. They have to spend all this money fighting this war for thirty more years because they don’t have enough money not to.
Sweden enters the Thirty Years War in 1630 and it’s this grand military adventure led by the dashing King Gustavus Adolphus the Great. Only he dies a couple years in and all their momentum evaporates. They’re staying in the war so that when it finally ends, they can ensure ratification of Gustav’s conquests. And of course the longer they’re there, the more expensive it becomes, and they really can’t afford it. But the minute they pull up and go back home, all that money and all that blood that they’ve expended will be for nothing. They’ve gotta have something to show for it at the end, otherwise what was it all for? So it’s sort of a sunk cost fallacy thing going on, and keeps them in the war fifteen years after their whole adventure collapses.
And at a certain point they’re there long enough that they couldn’t pull out if they wanted to – they don’t have enough money to disband the army. So they’re going to have to ensure that part of the settlement at the end of the war is going to involve getting enough money to pay the army off – and of course all the while, as these years go on, that dollar amount is getting higher. So, like Spain, they have to spend all this money fighting this war because they don’t have enough money not to.
Grant: Tell us about the thinking behind the Arrears Table and how your new debt is calculated each round?
Tom: The Arrears Table is representing a number of things – actual wages in arrears for the troops, interest on loans, et cetera – but basically how it works is that at the start of every Diplomacy Phase, you get more Debt. The more Debt you have, the more you’re going to get – the rate of accrual increases with your total Debt, and it can balloon out of control rather quickly.
What helps to control this – besides trading it away to other players – is Prestige. The more Prestige you have, the lower the rate at which your Debt will accrue. This is like Spain’s reputation propping it up as it limps along, and also generally the idea that the folks who are winning battles are a safer bet than those that are losing them. Think of Prestige as like a credit score – good Prestige is good credit, and gives you better “interest rates”.
Grant: How is the concept of negotiation handled in the design? What can be negotiated and why?
Tom: Essentially players can trade anything with anybody. Prestige. Units. Territory. Commerce Cards. Promises to do something or not do something. Debt. Now, I don’t want your Debt, but maybe I need Units and you’ll give me Units if I also take on some of your Debt – and so it’s a very rare transaction in the game that doesn’t involve Debt or Prestige changing hands.
Grant: What is a generally good strategy regarding negotiation in the game and how things are valued?
Tom: Ha, well, that’s the tricky part, isn’t it?
I think one thing that people don’t like about negotiations in games is apprehension about not properly valuing things in the trade, or that you might make a trade which advantages one player more than another, and “Don’t trade with Bob – if you do, he’ll win the game!” And I’m not sure that’s necessarily a “problem” with negotiation games, but if it is, it’s a problem that Westphalia tries to address.
Essentially, my general strategy advice about how to properly value the commodities being traded is, don’t worry too much about it. It’s not going to cost you the game if Bob gets more out of a trade than you do, because if Bob wins it doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t, and different things are going to have different values to different players. I’m not saying give away the whole farm or anything, and there are pitfalls, but you don’t need to be mathematically rigorous when making these agreements – it’s okay if it’s a little lopsided.
This I hope encourages negotiation, and allows it to be a little more loosey-goosey.
Grant: What is the general flow of the gameplay?
Tom: The game unfolds in alternating Diplomacy Phases and Military Phases. Diplomacy Phases are where all the negotiation happens. They’re also slightly procedural – every Diplomacy Phase is the same set of steps performed in order. What happens in those steps will create opportunities for, and impact, negotiations around the table.
In the Military Phase, there is no negotiation allowed – it’s just each player having a turn marching their army around the map, taking territory, accepting or refusing battle, boom-boom-boom, quick-quick-quick.
The order that these turns happen is dictated by an Initiative Track, and Initiative is set during the Diplomacy Phase. In fact, it’s another thing you can negotiate about – you can trade positions on the track to alter the turn order. Going first or last isn’t necessarily better or worse, but when your turn happens in relation to other players, and where your enemies are in the turn order compared to you and your allies, that can matter a lot to the tempo of the operations, and thus the results.
Grant: What is the concept of Unrest and how is it important to the design?
Tom: During the Diplomacy Phase there’s an Unrest Step, where the French and Swedes can stir up trouble with German Protestants, basically working on the internal divisions within the HRE. This involves “buying” (with units) cards from an Unrest Deck. Once they’re flipped over, they’re going to indicate a tension within the HRE – either Tolerance or Liberties – and an amount of Debt. If that Debt is accrued, it increases the track for that tension.
Grant: What are the Tolerance and Liberties Tracks and what function do they serve in the game?
Tom: This is essentially a measure of the loss of central Catholic and Imperial authority. Tolerance represents tolerance for Protestants, and Liberties represent the autonomy of the component states within the Empire. Austria wants these tracks to be as low as possible, and shares “ownership” of each track with two “junior partners” – these being the Powers that would like their track as high as possible, please.
Bavaria and Sweden both want Liberties high, Bavaria because that’s Bavaria’s whole deal, and Sweden because, after the war, they’re going to be holding onto territory within the HRE which will still be part of the HRE. So they want as much autonomy within that structure as possible.
Sweden and the Dutch Republic, both being Protestants, want Tolerance as high as possible. With the Dutch this is perhaps less historically founded – they didn’t really care what was going on in Germany, and were really concerned more with business than the fate of their fellow Protestants. But it does offer a reduction to their Debt, and that’s nothing to sneeze at.
How these tracks work is that if Austria and one of those junior partners agree, the marker is moved up or down accordingly. These tracks are also moved via the Unrest cards we mentioned before – that’s internal pressure coming from the various Protestant princes. The Tolerance track in particular is also adjusted by player actions in two instances. First, if a Protestant Power (Sweden or the Dutch Republic) win a battle, Tolerance goes up – which is an extra incentive for them to accept a battle. Second, whenever Bavaria forcibly converts a Protestant area back to Catholicism, Tolerance goes down – remember, Bavaria needs Liberties higher than Tolerance to win.
Grant: When does the game come to an end? How is the end game scored? You said multiple nations can win. How does this get resolved?
Tom: At the end of the last Diplomacy Phase, we’re going to move onto what is called Debt Resolution. This is where we look at all the stuff you’ve accomplished, and we’re going to reduce your Debt accordingly. Your territory, your Prestige, Commerce Cards, those Tolerance and Liberties tracks – all that’s going to reduce Debt. Then, like we mentioned before, you’re going to check for victory – usually you’re going to compare the Debt you have left to some of those accomplishments.
If you meet all your victory conditions, then you win. If multiple players do that, they all win. The catch is, if all six players meet their victory conditions, we don’t all win. At that point, we go to a scoring round, and we earn victory points according to Affinities – to overlapping groups. For example, Bavaria is a Minor Catholic HRE power so it’s going to score certain points for being a Minor Power, certain points for being Catholic, certain points for being part of the HRE. When we do scoring, only one player wins the game.
And so this isn’t by any stretch of the imagination a cooperative game – while you might help other players win in order to secure your own victory, you also have to work to ensure that someone at the table loses. This is complicated by the fact that Austria can’t win if Bavaria and Spain don’t win, and France can’t win if Sweden and the Dutch don’t win, so Austria and France are going to fight tooth and nail for their allies (even if those allies don’t give a toss about them).
Scoring can be a little unpredictable, and might perversely reward the player who “deserves” it the least. Because of this, and because all players are assumed to be maximizing their own chances of winning, no player is going to want to let it come to that. So it’s more honored in the breach than the observance – the scoring mechanism is there to shape the incentives, as a threat against being too pally-wally, rather than something to be utilized.
Grant: What does the design do well?
Tom: Gosh, I don’t know. Everything?
By which I mean I think it succeeds on the admittedly very peculiar terms that I set for it. I wanted to capture, in an abstracted and playable way, these complicated and ambiguous political relationships, the way they’re all tangled up with each other and dependent on each other and hold each other back. In a way, it’s about the reason I gave above for the game only having six players – if you “remove” one of them, the delicate balance of power breaks, and someone’s ambitions go unchecked. So modeling, even at a very high level, that kind of power politics is something I was very interested in, and that I think the games does very well.
Grant: What has been the experience of your playtesters?
Tom: I wish I could say, everybody who has ever played it has loved it, but you know, it’s a nerdy game for exactly six players that goes heavy on freeform negotiations. There are certain players and playtesters for whom that is very much their jam, and there are others for whom it is very much not. We had some testers who either don’t really care for negotiation games or don’t really enjoy obscure historical subjects and consulting an Arrears Table and stuff like that. And those folks participated in the playtest because sometimes we had five players and needed a sixth in order to play the game. I will be honest with you: the other five players in those sessions enjoyed the game a lot more than the guy or gal who was pressganged to fill that last slot. And when we had a playtest where all six players were wheeler-dealers and/or history nerds, that’s where the game really sang.
You know, one of the jokes we have here at Hollandspiele HQ is that I spend a lot of my time telling people not to buy our games, and why they shouldn’t. And I’ll say that with regards to Westphalia, if you have a group of six players who are all going to be into this, this is probably a good choice for you and your group. On the other extreme, if you really dig this kind of stuff and you have five friends who don’t like negotiation and are only going to play the game because last week you suffered through one of the games they wanted to get on the table, you’re not going to have a good time and should probably stay away.
Most game groups are going to be somewhere in-between these two poles of course. Six fully-committed wheeler-dealers is ideal, but five wheeler-dealers and one warm body might suffice, maybe even four wheeler-dealers and two warm bodies. Three and three, I’d probably recommend passing on this one.
But with the right group, they seemed to have an absolute blast. There is a bit of a learning curve. The game is actually very simple mechanically, but because the dynamics between the players are so intricate, it can be difficult to hold onto everything at first, and difficult to understand that you don’t necessarily need to hold onto everything to pursue your goals.
There are three things that seem to be exceptionally common with first-timers in our playtests. First, unless there’s someone at the table who lives for nothing more than facilitating deals left and right, not much gets traded during the very first Diplomacy Phase – things don’t heat up for them until the second or third Diplomacy Phase, at which point they’re trying to make up for lost time. Experienced players don’t have this problem, and will jump into the trading right away, because they know they have a limited amount of time in which to accomplish things.
[Editor’s Note: This paragraph was my experience to a tee while playing the game at WBC with Tom controlling France. In the first Diplomacy Phase, he traded everything, even one of his shoes, and everyone sat around, blinking a lot, acting as if they got it, but after that, the flood gates opened and someone even offered to trade their mortgage! Great fun and a very interesting and different experience to any gaming experience I have ever experienced!]
Second, new players are very likely to overdo it in the Military Phases – everybody’s fighting every turn, and before they’re halfway through the game, everyone has these tiny little rump armies that can’t do much of anything. I did find that mentioning this upfront seemed to throw new players in the opposite direction – the dice sit there beside the map, sobbing and neglected. Finding the right mix, and knowing when and how to feint, that’s key to success, and to a degree that comes with experience.
Third, new players are usually convinced that it’s impossible for them to win as we come into the Debt Resolution step, and those that do win are surprised that they did. Until you actually run them through how the Debt comes off, they just can’t hold it in their head. Once you do, then it clicks. The second time around and onward, they have a much better idea of how it works, and there isn’t that same feeling of dread followed by relief and shock.
With playtester feedback I did what I could both in the design and with the components to nudge them in the right direction, but these are probably going to occur in most learning games. And I know in today’s market there are plenty of folks who might be lucky to play a game once – especially a niche game that demands exactly six players. The subject, the asymmetry, and player count is an obvious barrier to entry, and having committed to those as essential elements of the design, I put my effort into reducing and removing other barriers – to having a simple ruleset and a short playing time, for example. We even included a “teaching script” as an appendix to the rulebook to make that process a little easier.
So because of the playtester experience, we did what we could to make it as easy to table as possible, and to increase the chances of it getting repeated plays. If you’re the sort of gamer who is only going to get to play it once, or for whom every new session is going to end up being a learning game for most players, then it might be that Westphalia is not for you, or is a game that’s going to work best for you as a “convention game”.
Grant: When is the game scheduled for release?
Tom: We’re releasing it concurrent with our Hollandays Sale, starting November 25th.
Grant: What is next for the incandescent Tom Russell?
Tom: Lots of stuff! I’ve got eight games coming out next year, which is one more than this year! This includes new entries in the Shields & Swords II, Table Battles, and “Master of” Series, a couple of train games, a game about voting rights in America, and something called Dinosaur Table Battles, which Mary tells me is the most important game in history and prehistory.
Thanks again for your time Tom and I really believe that people will find this one to be a very interesting gaming experience.
On another note. Today, the Hollandays Sale kicksoff and there are a lot of great deals to be had for a lot of great games by visiting the Hollandspiele website at the following link: https://hollandspiele.com/
Finally, if you are interested in Westphalia you can purchase a copy for the price of $45.00 from the Hollandspiele website at the following link: https://hollandspiele.com/products/westphalia-1