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Never Make Your Players feel Cheated

I once played a full campaign of EuroFront. The whole shebang, maps stretching the whole 6 meters from the Atlantic Ocean to the Ural mountains, hundreds of blocks on the table, a World War II nerd’s dream.

I started out hard with one major goal: I wouldn’t bog down in the Balkans and I’d go all in for North Africa, roll Rommel right through Egypt and take Russia from the south. I’d capture the Iraqi oil fields and get to roll for Spain to join the Axis. Then I’d use the Spanish troops to bolster the Atlantic Wall together with the Ost-truppen, withdraw the experienced Panzer divisions from the West and do a double hammer at the Rostov-na-Don area from both east and south.

Incredibly enough I managed to do that. I scraped, I scampered, I wasted resources like a madman to acclimatize the Panzer divisions to the African desert. Then I fought my way to Persia. Then I got Spain to join the dark cause. Then I realized that the game lied to me.

Impossible options

See, there was a moment at which the Allies landed in Portugal, which they were prevented from doing by the rules unless Spain was Axis. And as they started rolling their five divisions into Spain I realized that there was nothing I could do. Not because of bad planning but because the Spanish armed forces, an estimated real world total of some 500 000 men, were inadequate to hold of a few Allied divisions. The rules weren’t made to make Spain joining the war a crucial aspect, something that the Allied intelligence services feared and struggled to prevent, spending considerable resources during the first half of the war.

Yes, I could have read the rules better (just as I should have read the rule that forbade German units to enter Egypt before 1942 for “political reasons”). Yes I should have thought about what type of game this was.

Wrong kind of game

Except I didn’t. I thought that EuroFront was a sandbox simulation of World War II. It isn’t. It’s a tactical simulation on a grand scale, letting you compare yourself to Hitler or Stalin or Eisenhower to see if you manage to do better. The victory scale is based on when, rather than if, Berlin falls.

To me, the game built expectations of freedom. I wanted that freedom. I wanted to explore possibilities, not tactical choices and dice rolls. And when I realized that I’d spent 50+ hours playing a game that let me try but stacked the deck against me I was disappointed. Disappointed and angry.

I felt cheated because the game didn’t say “Spain is off limits”. Instead it gave Spain a token force. They simply didn’t have enough units to hold even their own territory unassisted. They were made to be ineffective, a resource sink. And yet the game provided ample opportunities to get them to join, prominently featured in diplomatic events and rules about how Spain would react if attacked by Axis or Allies. There even were Spanish Allied forces just in case. Not many, but they were there. And you could play the Spanish civil war beforehand, just in case you’d end up with a Spanish Republic.

Showing what’s important

EuroFrontII_Game_Axis_Take_BasraWhen I see something prominently displayed I surmise that it has some importance. If a movie spends the first twenty minutes following Jack through his enrollment, basic training and deployment to the war zone I assume that Jack is important for the story told. If the movie had him accidentally run over by a tank and killed in the 21st minute, I would be mad. I wouldn’t care one iota about Woofie the Tankdriving-Wolfhound, no matter how cool a character he would be. Setting up the movie with Jack effectively ties me to Jack. I don’t want to know about anyone but Jack since Jack’s the one I’m caring about.

Same with EuroFront. I cared about the event table. It was a large table, spanning all the tide turning events of the war, like Spain or Turkey joining. But Turkey (which I also got to join) was limited in what it was allowed to do, just as Spain. Its forces were also token forces. No Turkish divisions equipped with German rifles marching on the Soviet Union (they’re only allowed to move a single hex into Soviet territory). Nope, that would have changed the game too much. It would have been a game about Turkey and Spain, not Germany and Russia.

Broken promisses

And that’s the single biggest problem I have with EuroFront: it promises to be a game about Germany and Russia, Turkey and Spain. And England, and Italy and the US. But turns out to be a game about Germany and Russia. The rest of the nations are there for flavor.

And that truly sucks. It makes me care for Jack when I should have been rooting for Woolfie the Tank-hound. It builds up expectations that it doesn’t fulfill.

Yes, those expectations are all my own fault. If I had been more of a gamer I would have realized that they didn’t matter, that the game was made to be played a certain way. But I didn’t. I looked at Finland, with it’s real world strength of 32 tanks and 113 aircraft (counting the Fokker wood-and-cloth biplanes) and saw its strenght in terms of blocks on the map and thought hm… if they’re so strong against Russia, then Spain and Turkey, who are much larger nations, must be even stronger.

The lesson in this rant is this: I like EuroFront. I played it a lot. I played the EastFront sub-unit a lot. But ever since spending 50+ hours and feeling cheated rather than elated, it hasn’t hit the table once.

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