.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Thursday, January 12, 2006


Circvs Maximvs, The Era of Rules Lawyers and other Disjointed Ramblings

Got to play Circus Maximus (1980) the other day. I was lucky enough to play with a fellow who had worked at the old Avalon Hill and had written the rulebook. That is significant because the rule book is quite lengthy and involved. Play was quick, as no rules needed to be looked up and argued about. Circus Maximus was published in an era where every eventuality needed to be addressed in the rules or the rules were deemed "broken" or to have "huge holes" in them. Of course when every eventuality is covered there are more chances for mistakes and contradictions. As I said, in our game there was no arguing about the rules, if there was a questionable rule it was deemed to be "a misprint" and the game continued.

Circus Maximus is not a bad game, but it is a game that shows its age. It is a chariot racing game based upon the movie "Ben Hur". People who have played Circus Maximus have humerous stories about players crashing and still winning because the team of horses pulled their driver over the finish line on his belly, or players who crashed and got run over by multiple chariots, or players who eeked out a win after having 3 of their 4 horses killed by other players.

It is an old game with lots of theme and some die-hard fans. Although long out-of-print Circus Maximus still goes over well at game conventions with veterans and newbies alike. Many convention goers play on large home-made boards with painted, miniature chariots and teams of horses. Such games tend to draw crowds, and Circus Maximus has become, arguably, the most popular spectator game in boardgaming.

However, it is a game that is more fun to watch than it is to play. Circus Maximus has long stretches of down time. On their turn players roll dice 3 or 4 times, make a couple annotations on their information sheet, and wait for a half hour for their turn to come around again. From time to time players roll dice out of turn when they are attacked, or make annotations on their information sheet if an attack against them was successful.

Formula De, among others, are more modern, cleaner versions of the game. Rules for speeding through turns are much cleaner, rules for crashing and re-starting are much smoother, and braking and acceleration rules have been streamlined. All of this streamlining has come at a cost. You can't whip an opponent and put his eye out when playing Formula De, nor can you grab a whip away from an opponent and beat him with it. You can't kill an opponent's horse in Formula De. Formula De is faster, and has less downtime for players, but Formula De isn't much of a spectator game either.

Strong theme comes with a price. That price is usually extensive rules designed to keep the game from straying from the theme. Extensive rules are are also needed to keep a game historically accurate.

Circus Maximus was published in an era when the prevailing thought on boardgame production was that every eventuality needed to be addressed in the rules. As stated before, if a situation wasn’t addressed the rules were said to have “holes” in them. This mindset of game publishing lead to the “loop-hole” mentality. Instead of simply following the rules players looked for reasons that they couldn’t make a certain move.

“You can’t do that.”

“The rules don’t say I can’t.”

“The rules don’t say you can’t use a team of flying reindeer in the chariot race?”

“No. It isn’t addressed anywhere, I looked.”

“But it’s clear that chariots are pulled by horses. Look at the examples.”

“The examples have to refer to some type of animal. The rules themselves are clearly unclear.”

Thus began the deterioration of many a friendship.

I’ve read accounts that the original rules to Diplomacy didn’t specifically state that you could support your own units (I’m not sure, it might have been a foreign language version of the game). The rules only referred to supporting the units of other nations. It was clear in the examples that a player could support his own units with other units of his own, but rules-lawyers would argue the point when it suited them.

This “loop-hole” mindset still exists with many wargame publishers and players.

“That unit can only fire 4 spaces.”

“The rules are unclear. I’m firing from a hill to lower terrain.”

“The rules state, ‘artillery fires a maximum of 4 hexes’.”

“But other games that use this system allow an extra space if you have elevation.”

“The rules state, ‘artillery fires a maximum of 4 hexes’.”

“But I clearly have an elevation advantage.”

“The rules state, ‘artillery fires a maximum of 4 hexes’.”

“I can’t believe they didn’t address this issue in the rules. When are designers going to stop relying on customers to play-test their games?”

“They did address this issue. The rules state, ‘artillery fire a maximum of 4 hexes’.”

“I’ll look on ConSim tomorrow. Maybe there’s some errata posted.”

And rest assured the issue will be addressed on ConSim. There will be an entire thread, 32 pages long, dedicated to the issue of elevation and artillery in games utilizing similar combat systems.

Bottom line on Circus Maximus. Good diversion when you have a large group of aggressive gamers. I wouldn't play it more than once each year.
Good gaming

Great post.

Reminds me of why I dropped D&D after 3rd edition.

I mean, AT 3rd edition.

There's no reason that rules can't be written "complete", to cover every situation, except for the willingness of the game designer/developer to put the work in. Ex: Bulge 81' and Bitter Woods, both games with extremely few Q&A or errata, because the designer took the time to write the rules to be complete.
Wow. Good post - I had NO idea . . .
There clearly is a reason rules can't be written to cover every situation; it is impossible and furthermore not every situation is important.


Rules for soldiers answering the call of nature - clearly a requirement in real life but not a fun element if you have to make a "touching-cloth check" every turn.

Negligent discharge - a problem which frequently leads to "friendly fire" incidents, happens more frequently than you would like to believe and at best gives away one's position to an opponent.

Mutiny - like disobeying orders, but more specific than anything covered by a command check or morale check, and not necessarily resulting in troops heading off towards their own lines.

Arguably, with readiness checks, morale checks and CRT's all three are covered in an abstract fashion; clearly there is too much detail in these examples for them to be covered in any depth.

The most important point to me is the expectation for a rule that just isn't there; this isn't isolated to wargames either. An incident during a game of Wild Life always comes to mind when I see this mentioned - the supporting argument was "the rules don't say you can't" (specific details forgotten).
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?