Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The 30-minute epic is an oxymoron

One of the best Christmas presents this year was a rollicking game of Twilight Imperium last week. Thanks, Dave, for setting it up! I know it wasn't just for me, but I did enjoy the hell out of it.

Why do I love Twilight Imperium? Because it is unabashedly epic, in a genre that's full of good epics (Dune, the Foundation series, Ender's Game, Ringworld, the Hyperion series, etc. etc.). You won't finish in an hour, or two hours, or even three hours. But so what?

If you were adapting any of the epic SF stories I mentioned for the screen, you couldn't do it justice in 90 minutes. Ditto for epic stories from other genres, such as grand historical dramas like Lawrence of Arabia. Games are no different, particularly since you're doing more than just passively watching the story unfold. Building a story from scratch takes time, whether it emerges from the mechanics of a boardgame, or it happens more deliberately in a role-playing game.

We played almost an entire game of Twilight Imperium in a single evening. No, really. While we saved time through some shortcuts, such as fixed set-up, we also needed extra time to explain the game to a couple of new players. We ended one turn short of finishing, because it was getting pretty late for a weeknight (closing on 1 AM). But we felt satisfied with the experience -- at least as satisfied as if we had spent the same amount of time playing three or four shorter games.

People who impose an arbitrary ceiling on play time are cheating themselves out of a lot of very satisfying boardgame experiences. Sword of Rome, for example, presents the bare-knuckled power politics of the ancient world. Invading Gauls! Quarreling Greeks! Aloof Etruscans! Relentless Romans! If you pack all that, plus Carthaginians and Samnites, into an historical rollercoaster of a game, why complain that Sword of Rome supplies four or five rollicking hours of drama, instead of merely one or two?

Especially since the alternative doesn't exist. The 90-minute epic is a myth. There's just not enough time for anything that the word "epic" might mean, such as "a cast of thousands," or "big events happening to larger-than-life people." I've seen some noble efforts, but unfortunately, they don't work.

Galactic Emperor, for example, whittles the Twilight Imperium theme down to the point where you've barely researched anything, or invaded anywhere, or colonized anything, before the game is over. In that short span of time, the focus has to be on scoring points, since there's not enough theme to enjoy for itself. The really short Civilization-ish games have to abstract so much that, in some cases, I'm not even sure who I'm supposed to be. In Sword of Rome, I know when I'm playing the Gauls, but in Roll Through The Ages, I'm playing the...Uh...Er...Um...

Heck, reality TV shows depict a kind of epic struggle, and they take a dozen or more hours per season to tell the whole story. If you really want an epic boardgame experience, get ready for hours of fun. And stop looking at the clock.

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