Imagine an area control game where you and one opponent are fighting over control of one space. On each turn you roll a die and can remove and/or add a number of cubes equal to the value. After 10 rounds whoever has the most cubes in the space wins. This is a terrible game. It’s simply a competition to see who rolls the highest cumulative number.
But we want to make this idea work, so we add some variety. Instead of one space there are five spaces, and whoever controls the most spaces at the end wins. This isn’t much better. In fact, in some respects it’s worse because it introduces a last-player advantage while only introducing a small mental hurdle to discover optimal play.
Ok, let’s complicate it more by assigning different point values to the different regions to make calculating the expected value (EV) of a given placement a bit more difficult. And maybe instead of the wild swings of a single die roll we’ll make a deck of cards. Perhaps the points on the cards can only go to one region at a time, but low valued cards have special powers on them to compensate for their relative weakness.
So you go on and iterate and you move past the initial “big numbers” problem where the side who gets the biggest numbers wins. Of course you could swing too far in the other direction and introduce so much chaos that decisions don’t feel meaningful again, but there’s a lot of space in the middle to play around with. Indeed, area control (or area majority, though for linguistic ease I’m going to combine both into the “control” label) is a popular mechanism and some of my favorite games of all time are centered around it.
However, I find that I see area control games push the line of being too deterministic quite frequently. I don’t know if this is due to some aspect of the mechanism or if it’s merely a personality quirk, but every time I sit down to play a new area control game I’m cognizant of it.
The determinism curve isn’t limited to area control, as any sort of game could run the gamut from decisions being too simple to being too shrouded in chaos. Though simple randomness is pure chaos, so it’s more of a determinism circle that loops to and from the space where Candyland and Roulette and War live.
All of that to say that Dual Powers toes the line a bit too close for my comfort. It’s a handsomely illustrated game from Brett Myers and Thunderworks Games that explores the Russian Revolution of 1917. The conflict takes place entirely in the city of St. Petersburg (then called Petrograd), and each side is trying to gain support of the people at large, represented by neutral armies, in their attempt to seize control.
Play is simple: play a card, take an action, and advance time. The actions mostly amount to recruiting and moving units. Advancing time is a genuinely interesting, though stilted, mechanism. Every card you play advances time a certain amount on the calendar. If after doing that you land on the 15th, 29th, 30th, or 31st of the current month you get a bonus action. If you flip the calendar to the next month you gain control of the will of the people, converting all the neutral forces to your side.
It’s another layered element onto the simple area majority foundation of the game, and I waver between loving it and finding it a touch contrived. I suppose it represents some level of forethought and understanding of the ebbs and flows of an angry populace, but it feels more like an arbitrary bonus that sometimes shifts one card to becoming better than another card because it triggers the extra mini-action. The end of the month bonus feels like a consolation prize designed to help balance the fact that you just gave your opponent control of the will of the people.
Every round, before action begins, each player chooses one card from their hand to place facedown. The region of the city on the card will be scored at the end of the round, along with one publicly-known region. There’s a tradeoff between the power of the card if played as an action and how many points it’s worth in the scoring phase. You obviously want to shuffle armies to the spaces that are going to score without altering your opponent to the location of your secret scoring card, though this ultimately creates only mild intrigue.
Another promising wrinkle is the fact that any given unit can typically only participate in two conflicts before it’s removed from the map. After the first conflict it’s flipped over. Usually that means it loses strength, but some units actually gain strength after their first conflict.
Leaders are particularly valuable; each side begins the game with three and their powers inject some much-needed adrenaline into the proceedings. One simply takes the will of the people. Another lets you peek at your opponent’s scoring card. This is what “adrenaline” is in the context of Dual Powers.
I think I might be overstating my reservations, because Dual Powers is a well-crafted game. I understand all of the decisions the designer made and they make sense. It’s good game design. But a game about one of the most significant events of the 20th century; about a conflict contained to a single city, restless and violent—that game should feel explosive.
Dual Powers feels polite. Sometimes the decision of what to do is obvious: you place or move forces into the spaces that score. Occasionally they’re more complex: do you prioritize fighting over the publicly known scoring space, knowing that if you take too much control your opponent will abandon it, gaining tempo on other priorities, or do you keep that struggle tight and try to eke out victories by smaller margins? What’s the value of landing on the 15 space on the calendar this turn? Will you be able to make sure you flip the month before the next scoring phase? Rarely your decisions are genuinely tense: When do you drop your most powerful leader? Will using him now squander that strength or are you passing by your best opportunity? At what point do you signal your secret scoring location? Is there space to try a feint?
In its noble attempt to reign in the card-driven area control game, both in length and complexity, Dual Powers also restrains its ability to excite. The first couple of times I played it I remembered it fondly. It seemed so intelligently assembled, each mechanical bit placed in its proper location. I wasn’t jumping to play it again but I thought further play might tease out a more raw, compelling experience. After my last play it’s only soured. Those mechanical bits are still there, but they’re only there, assembled for display.