Game Night Verdicts #22 – Crossroads of Heroes

One of the unique features of games is the way that they instruct and teach players to behave in certain ways. They are systems of rules and if-then clauses that hang together to either propel the game towards its conclusion, or to generate rich and complex ways of interaction between players. They do so by drawing attention to certain key rules and concepts (like generate the most VP) and letting players figure out how to get there by carefully examining the rest of the rules and plotting a course. Veteran players know this dynamic intimately. Once you’ve played enough games, you will become trained in spotting which elements of the game create synergies, which are opposites made to create tension and how to differentiate between core and auxiliary rules. Given sufficient practice gamers become adapt at analyzing these systems or even internalizing them during play. We simply “know” what a good move is, because we’ve understood how the rules hang together. Eventually this learned ability becomes a habit, then a preference and finally a “skill”: system manipulation.

It’s a cool picture, and I needed an excuse to post it.

This is what experienced gamers are good at. Getting into a game, mentally deconstructing the network of variables and incentives and then swimming with the stream. Somewhere along the line, though, we forget that there is another way. That once upon a time, when we started out in this hobby we looked to other things to give us a cue how to behave. We looked at the game’s theme.

A while back I played a game of Modern Art with my less experienced gaming group. (I don’t want to call them non-gamers, as I think it’s a silly label. They game, just not as much or frequently as I do.) A few days earlier I had played the same game with my regular (i.e. very experienced) gaming group and the contrast in experience was striking. Whereas the veteran players quickly figured out that you could determine how profitable a painting could become this round and played accordingly, the inexperienced group did no such thing. They didn’t look at the numbers or the victory condition to tell them what to focus on. They saw bidding over modern art pieces and cultural narratives being what they are immediately turned to absurd prices and collector’s pettiness as the driving force of the game. No price was too high (unless they couldn’t pay for it), if it meant you could either complete your collection or retaliate against somebody who took the painting you wanted earlier.

Veteran gamers put a bigger emphasis on rules when it comes to guiding their decisions, whereas less experienced gamers generally find it easier to take their cues from a game’s theme, as opposed to its underlying systems. (Which is why presentation and theme integration are key to making a game accessible.)

Crossroads of Heroes, then, is a game by first-time designer Pat Piper. In an interview with Master Guy Larke for Majalah Seni Beladiri (a Malaysian martial arts magazine), he mentioned being influenced by old Wuxia TV dramas and movies from his childhood. And it shows. Crossroads of Heroes feels like vague memory from the past. A hazy recollection of stories you feel you’ve heard somewhere before, without being able to name them. It invokes its genre in a loving and respectful way, without ever needing to slavishly adhere to its tenets. There are no intricate rules for Wuxia-style flying maneuvers, for example. It is one technique facing another. With the occasional help of a hidden blade.

In this way the game creates thematic coherence in a very interesting way. It does not refer to reality or history, for one. The places you meet do not need a real counterpart. They are “the Temple” or “the Gathering”. In much the same way, that a medieval fantasy game might have you rescue “the Princess” from “the Castle”. But they also don’t refer to specific historical events in China’s past. If there are references to specific stories in the genre (and I’m not well-versed enough to tell), they are buried so deep as to barely influence gameplay. Instead, Crossroads of Heroes  creates a swirl of distinct story motifs that suddenly connect as you play to create the next plot point in the narrative. Duels result in characters vowing revenge. The Buddhist monk comes one step closer to enlightenment by foregoing some of his possessions. By forgiving our enemies we become better people. (I’m having a very hard time with this step to be honest)

This guy gets it!

All this means that the game exists and moves within the narrative conventions and the genre logic of Wuxia. To be clear, I am not saying that the rules only make sense because of the game’s genre. It’s more than that. Play only makes sense when you move within those boundaries. In fact, the game only comes alive when you are willing to look beyond the mechanics and internalize the game’s theme. This becomes most evident with duels. Depending on how much weight you put on theme, they are either a secondary mechanic to the VP race or a central conceit of the game.

Even then, some concessions are made to the gamer mindset. Entering a duel can only ever lead to somebody gaining VP, never losing them. You may be exhausted afterwards, but you will not lose VP as long as you are willing to fight. Something that especially conflict-shy players – like my regular gaming group – do not easily take to.

Does that mean that Crossroads of Heroes is another one of those Kickstarter games that are heavy on theme, but light on mechanics?

No, not really. It is a light game in the sense, that the amount of relevant rules is quickly and easily understood, and mechanical pressures are easy to spot. But it is not a loose game. It’s not the kind of game that thrives on randomness to keep it lively or on discovering a strange combination of elements each time you play. It is not light in the sense of requiring little attention to detail.

Within its evident admiration for the genre it seeks to evoke in the players’ minds there is a robust and capable design. Unlike many other first design attempts, it withstands closer inspection. There are no clunky mechanics that do something simple in a complicated way. There is no sense of elements being included, because “that’s how it’s done”. Every element of the design is held together by its shared purpose: making Wuxia come alive at your table. Even then, your options are always clearly delineated. Your short-term goals and objectives easily spotted and understood. Far too often a game feels deep or mechanically dense, because vital information is obscured from players. Their designs hide what you’re supposed to do or how to achieve your goal, asking you to play the game numerous times before you can make tactically sound and strategically coherent decisions. Crossroads of Heroes does not do that. Its theme lays the groundwork, and the mechanics crystalize those dynamics into tangible rules.

D’you know what nemesis means?

A case in point: the nemesis mechanic. If you lose a duel, your opponent becomes your nemesis, your sworn enemy. Doing so opens up the option of gaining VP by forgiving them. But it also means that they will no longer target you for a duel, as they have nothing to gain from defeating you again. The game’s thematic inspiration is codified into rules, which in turn shape the above-the-table interaction between players. The ignominy of not only losing a duel, but then no longer be of interest to the victor… is a subtle, but nonetheless brilliant little detail that entices you to be invested into your character.

Ultimately it’s the duels that provide the main source of tension in this game. The quickly resolved mini-game creates the pulse for the VP race everyone is engaged in. Unfortunately, this is also where the game becomes a little unstable. It relies on players innate desire to challenge each other, in order to drive game’s arc forward. It’s one of the most delicate decisions a designer has to make: to what extent does the game move towards its resolution on its own (e.g. Rex and its limited number of turns, or Food Chain Magnate and the increase in VP payout as player’s progress). If you are too strict, the game can feel like it ends to soon or, even worse, like it has stuck the players on rails and they are just along for the ride. Their decisions are only there to add some colour to the scenery as it moves past them. On the other hand, if you are too lax, the game becomes fragile and requires the group to play “right” to stabilize the experience. This can work in some cases, like in The Resistance Avalon, where the right set of players can set the tone, style and shape of the game for it to work well. But it can also backfire and lead to a game that is nigh incomprehensible, unless you have the opportunity to be introduced to it by somebody who is already “in-the-know” (c.f. Indie RPGs of the ‘00s)

An argument could be made, that Crossroads of Heroes may have benefited from being less generous with its assumptions about players. It may have benefited from setting players on a stricter path, adding some kind of pressure to drive confrontation that wasn’t player-driven, or theme-driven even. It would get players on track quicker and get the ball rolling from game 1. As it is, the game has a learning curve that isn’t due to its rules or the implications thereof, but because the game’s momentum is driven by player decisions. It can either turn into a wild Jackie Chan brawl of everyone smacking around everyone else, or it can morph into an episode of Dragon Ball Z, where most people are just charging up all the time.

But I’m not willing to fault a game for treating its players as more flexible in their playstyles than they actually are. I’m sure there are enough people out there, whose mindset fits the game’s sensibilities perfectly. To them the previous paragraph may just seem alien und weird. Others may just feel directionless; even disappointed that the game is not a system of layered and interwoven mechanics that need to be wielded competently to result in victory. Calling Crossroads of Heroes random or theme-first, does the design a disservice, I think.

Its elements of randomization aren’t fundamentally more present than in most eurogames. You are given a set number of options on your turn, and it is up to you how to pursue them: carefully or daring. The game merely doesn’t respond to players knowing the cards intimately (cf. Terraforming Mars) or being familiar with the game’s ebb and flow (cf. Twilight Struggle).

If there is one flaw, that can sadly make the game feel a little long and arduous, it’s that that your hand of cards refreshes far too slowly. During your turn you only get a single card (choosing from a whopping two cards you draw). But since most turns see you spend a card or more to gain momentum, the game can easily slow down to a crawl, inching forward tiny step by tiny step.

That’s a real shame, as the game really springs to life once players feel that their hand of cards gives them flexibility as opposed to boxing them in for no apparent reason. This is doubly true, because part of the game’s appeal lies in particularly mean cards slowly turning you to the dark side (which appropriately names you evil scum). This feels far less like an actual choice, when your hand is depleted and refills (painfully slowly) with cards about underhanded scheming and less than honourable plotting.

It’s true that Crossroads of Heroes tells a story. But when it shines, it does more than that. It manages to merge the mechanical with the interpersonal. It turns the quest for martial arts excellence into a competition between people, not cardboard. For a first-time design this game is a remarkable achievement in that it manages to achieve so much with comparatively little. No pages upon pages of backstory, no multitude of distinct rules clusters weighing down playability. There is admirable restraint in the design that speaks of a confidence of purpose and I admire that. What could easily have devolved into a bash-the-leader style VP race, instead turns your decisions into a larger narrative. Every duel you fight becomes another chapter in your Wuxia tale.

After I played the game in Essen last year, I was head over heels with it. It is still one of my top 5 gaming experiences of 2018. But while I am still a big fan of the game, even after our comparatively lacklustre play recently, I also recognise that not everyone will find it easy to get into this game. Incorporating theme into your decision making is generally something that most new gamers are taught not to do, in order to become more effective and “better” at board games. This game, then, ignores our veteran gamer teachings. This may seem an affront to some, or bad game design. To me, it’s a joyful reminder of what gaming was like when I started. When illustrations weren’t just a pretty accessory to gameplay, but our gateway to it. When a game’s theme wasn’t there to help us understand the rules better, but the reason to play the game in the first place.

When you sit down to play this game, you have to ask yourself which path you want to follow: the one that the veterans have taught you or the one you once started on.

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