By Hermann Luttmann
Dancing Through Raindrops… and Musket Balls… and Cannon Balls…
In Magnificent Style is the first in the new Death or Glory! series of games from Victory Point Games depicting various famous “forlorn hope” attacks of history. This is my fourth published design for VPG and you may be wondering “How the heck did he manage to get four games published in less than a year?!” Well, honestly most of the credit goes to Alan Emrich’s guidance, along with the wonderful “noobie designer” support system that exists at Victory Point Games. The other factor is that I’ve really tried to find a niche area of game design by developing new “takes” on rather popular subjects. So, for example, one of my games is about Gettysburg, but involves only the fighting at the Wheatfield (a subject that has never been covered in detail) and uses a miniatures-based game system. Another game is a zombie game, but is solitaire and set at a more operational level than the normal skirmish level zombie games. The third is a baseball game which in no way resembles any other baseball game, thus avoiding the pitfalls of direct comparisons to Strat-O-Matic, etc. and making the game more accessible to younger players and the more casual baseball fan.
This latest publication, In Magnificent Style, also fits neatly into this game design template. It’s a game about arguably the single most infamous Civil War battle event – Pickett’s Charge – during the war’s most famous battle – Gettysburg – and yet is ironically one of the most un-gameable situations you can think of. Now this certainly sounds like a recipe for disaster, but not really. Understand – I play games primarily to enjoy the narrative, experience the thrills and revel in the excitement of encountering unexpected situations and attempting to deal with them. Gaming is my action movie, my exotic journey and my adventure novel. When I play, I want the game to take me for a joyride and as long as I have fun and my adrenaline is pumping, I don’t care about winning or losing. It’s all about the ride!
So I thought that I could take those feelings of tension, terror and pending calamity prevalent in these horrid doomed attacks of history and convert them into thrilling game narratives. On the surface, you’d think these battles would make boring games. But my thinking was that by placing the player in the position of the unnerved attacker and telling him to “push-his-luck” the best he can would inspire some great gaming moments. Essentially, the idea was to have the player play solitaire and be forced to constantly perform “against the odds”, evoking the emotions of a desperate gambler down to his last chip. Therefore what makes these near-suicidal frontal assaults entertaining is the desperation to survive. The system is designed to throw all sorts of chaos and disaster at you – what are you going to do about it?
In Magnificent Style actually began life as a World War I trench assault game. I switched to designing a more generic game system that could be used as the DNA for a core system and then massaged to fit other periods of history. While cobbling together a framework to accomplish these goals, I stumbled upon some unique and interactive mechanics. First of all, I harkened back to my childhood and pulled out of my memory banks a dice game called “Schwein” (or “Pig”) that my German grandmother taught me when I was young. By enhancing the dice mechanics of that game, I was able to construct a system that generates not only the unit’s move, but also vigorous enemy “activity”. This device also keeps the player constantly involved, as each roll generates a major decision point.
Added to this dice mechanic, the drawing of Event Chits containing both positive and negative events produces a multitude of more opportunities and more angst for the player. This all melds together into a cohesive system that gives the player the feeling of leading men forward through a hail of enemy fire, straining with each die roll to reach an improbable goal. Hopefully, this amalgamation of systems yields the right blend of chaos management, clever decision-making and plain dumb luck. The player must decide when to push his men forward through the storm and when to have them hunker down and try again next turn. But the additional problem is that there are only five turns in which to get this done and almost nowhere on the game board is a safe haven. There is a ton of dice-rolling and chit-pulling but this serves not only to keep the player actively involved in the game, but also assures a new experience every time it’s played.
Importantly, it should be noted that this game is not meant to be a detailed study of this or any other battle. It is a quick-playing “gambling” style game system that uses a historically-based theme to provide context. It is a game of entertainment first and a simulation second. However, one play tester (Paul Fish) did note that playing In Magnificent Style compelled him to further research Pickett’s Charge in more detail and that is certainly a constructive residual effect of the game’s experience.
So I hope that those of you who try this game will come away with a smile on your face and a feeling that you were on a perilous adventure for an hour or so. Lead your troops through the carnage, go once more into the breach and hopefully have fun doing so!