Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Could 1955 go on forever?

For Christmas, my friend Paul R. gave me 1955: The War of Espionage (designer Kevin Nunn, artist Haley Ross, publisher APE Games).  I had it very high on my wishlist after some positive mention on DiceHateMe's "State of Games" podcast (starting at 42:45) as a nice tight two-player game.  Kathy and I played it once before a few weeks ago (which she won by securing my home country), and tonight we thought we'd bring it out and try it again.

In 1955:TWoE, players assume the roles of spymasters - one player for "blue" (western allies) and one for "red" (Soviet bloc).  There are six countries at stake in the game - U.S., U.K., France, U.S.S.R., Hungary, and Poland.  The goal is to bring enough covert influence to secure control of any three countries or the opponent's home country.  Each player has a spy that resides in one of the six countries at any given time.  

Most of the game action comes from card play.  Almost every card can have one of two functions - to bring influence to bear on a country (in an effort to secure control of that country) or to exercise a special action that gives some kind of advantage or manipulation to the game.  The presence of the spy enhances the amount of influence that can be applied.  On each turn, a player gets two card play actions, then draws back up to a hand size of (usually) five, then moves his spy.  An influence action can sometimes allow playing more than one card for a big influence play, but if an influence attempt is made in an opponent's home country or in the country where the enemy spy is located, then the enemy has an opportunity to block the influence action by playing enough counter-influence.

Our first game went relatively quickly.  I didn't protect my home country well enough, and before long, Kathy's influence there got away from me, and she overpowered my attempts to block her and won the game.  In our game this evening, however, the game went on for some time with a lot of tug-of-war over about three or four countries.  I almost gained enough influence in the U.S.S.R. to win the game, but Kathy clawed her way back to keep me from taking it.  Meanwhile I managed to secure control of France, came very close to securing Poland, and made decent progress in U.K.  But then Kathy played a "Revolution" special action that undermined my control of France, and combined a number of plays in Poland to keep me from securing that country as well.  

So what we found after perhaps 45 minutes or so of play was that we were engaged in a tug-of-war in which the game state kept hovering around an equilibrium of influence; although I usually had the advantage in most countries, neither of us could make the coup-de-grace to put the game to bed.  We stopped playing so that we could get ready for dinner, but I put it away with the concern that perhaps the game had the potential for "perpetual play."  

I had this problem with one of my earliest game designs.  In "Diadochi: The Fate of Alexander's Empire,"  end-game was triggered when a player reached 42 points by controlling enough territories.  But since the dynamic of the game was constant shifting of control as players continually bashed the leader, there was a danger that the game might never end.  I shelved it before I solved that problem, but whenever I get back to "D:TFoAE," one of the first things I will tackle is end-game condition.

It occurred to me that some games have an immutable path toward end-game, some have a general "increase in entropy" that tends toward resolution, but a few have the potential for a kind of circulating game-state that might never trigger end-game if no player gains a decisive advantage.  Games of immutable progress include Pillars of the Earth and Agricola, which have a fixed number of rounds to play.  Cribbage and Settlers of Catan have players continually scoring points until someone reaches a certain threshold (although I have seen some SoC games go for quite a few turns at nine points).  The End of the Triumvirate is guaranteed to end in no more than four epochs, since there is an election at the end of each epoch, and the game ends if any player wins two elections.  Acquire has a finite number of spaces on the board, and a player must add a tile every turn; sooner or later, enough tiles are played to end the game.

Many games have a general "tendency towards resolution" but still depend on reaching a game end-condition that has no theoretical upper bound.  In checkers and chess, pieces get captured and never come back, but even this "rising entropy of game-state" is no guarantee of a game end.  Players can theoretically dodge defeat indefinitely without some decisive blow by one player.  Risk is interesting in this respect; in one sense, territories can theoretically shift control back and forth, which suggests that it could go on indefinitely.  With each card turn-in yielding more armies than the one before, however, the time will come when a player's campaign is unstoppable.  Monopoly really will go on forever if no player ever acquires a monopoly; the income from "Go" will on average exceed the losses from rent, and players will eventually all get rich and never go bankrupt.

Games with a potential for "perpetual play" are those whose game state can actually return to a previous condition.  A tennis game that has reached "deuce" is in that situation; it will go on indefinitely if no player wins two points in a row.  A baseball game that is tied in the ninth inning faces the same potential.  And it seems that 1955 may have the same characteristic, since the influence positions of the different countries can theoretically return to their starting points over the normal course of play.  If there is no "killing stroke," there may be no end-game.

Later this evening, I read a couple of the reviews of 1955 on boardgamegeek (of which there are only a few), and I got the impression that the game gets better with more sessions as players learn how to use the special actions effectively.  I can imagine that with some finesse and planning, the opportunity exists to feint the opponent into moving the spy away from the country that you want to target for takeover.  So perhaps we'll give it another try at some point and see if we can't tease out the subtleties of cardplay in this interesting little game.


  1. We were just talking about this last night with beat down the leader games or games like 1955 where there isn't anything (other than randomness of cards) that forcefully breaks up the equilibrium and pushes toward an endgame. I like some back and forth, but when a game is all about that back and forth, the playtime swings wildly and I find myself getting bored. Games like this have a tendency to sometimes overstay their welcome.

    One element that my favorite games seem to have in common, like you said, is an open but inevitable push towards completion; the race to the finish in most euro games. It's nice to know that the game will eventually end and that timing is more important than playing a card that reverses progress. I think a good game design anticipates player choice and has an excellent built-in clock.

    I love interaction, but if it uncontrollably elongates or shortens gameplay, I'm not usually a fan.

  2. This "problem" is nearly the opposite of the "runaway leader problem". A simple if inelegant solution is to put a turn limit on the game. Whoever has the most points (in this case, most countries?) at that point is the winner. That approach can lead to "artificial" player actions in the end game, but that may be preferable to a game that never ends.