Theory: Succession Wars and Not Having Enough Players

This weekend I was forced to confront an issue that’s been lurking in Over the Next Dune’s development for a while: what happens when a group wants to play cooperatively, but has fewer than five players? To answer that question, we have to look at a game that grappled with the same problem–and that, I feel, got it wrong.

Fans of Battletech–the classic game of giant fighting robots–might be familiar with The Succession Wars (“TSW”). TSW was a zoomed-out giant fighting robot game in which five interstellar empires battled for supremacy. Instead of controlling a few robots, each player controlled one of the empires, moving its armies and trying to take over the other players’ territories. If you imagine Risk in space you have something of the idea.

TSW’s map was arranged in a circle, with each player having a piece of the circle. As a result, at the start of the game each player shared a border with two other players. In a five-player game, this arrangement is OK. Everyone starts with two players to worry about, and things are even.

Unfortunately, it turns out that that balance is very fragile. My friends and I tried the game once with four players. It was an unmitigated disaster. The rules direct that when there are only four players, one player plays two of the neighboring empires (the purple and green on the map). Hence, those two empires each had one “safe” border–my friend was quite reasonably not going to attack himself. Not having to divide their forces to cover two fronts gave those empires an enormous numbers advantage where they were actually going to fight. That game ended with the player controlling two empires steamrolling the opposition.

TSW was balanced around the idea that everyone would need to pay attention to two borders at once. Putting one player in charge of neighboring empires freed those empires from the need to defend against each other, which broke that cardinal rule and ultimately broke the game. The neighbors controlled by a single player effectively had twice as many forces to deploy on the border each was going to contest, which proved to be a dominating advantage.

The lesson I took from TSW is that when one player needs to “sub in” for others, controlling multiple players’ pieces, the rules must ensure that the player cannot combine those pieces to become more powerful than the other players in the game. TSW tried to avoid that sort of combination with a rule that the player in charge of neighboring empires could not pool their money or forces, but by allowing a strategic partnership between the two empires it ultimately failed to prevent the single player from having more resources than everyone else. OtND needs to avoid that mistake, and next time we’ll apply TSW’s lesson to our case study.