Thursday, August 23, 2012

T.E.G., cards and metaphorical thought

T.E.G. (plan Táctico y Estratégico de la Guerra, Tactic and Strategic plan of War), created in 1976 by a charismatic Jew named David Jiterman, is probably Argentina's most famous Argentinean tabletop game. It's pretty much like Risk, which is surprisingly unknown around here.

Rules are a little different, but the only mayor difference lies in the games' goals: Risk generally has world domination as a common goal for all players, and also complete annihilation of enemies. T.E.G. is a little subtler: the common goal is to conquer some number of countries, not all, and each player also has a secret, unique goal to reach.

This gives the game some particular flavors. First, if players are new enough to the game, it's possible for a player to win the game by surprise. Since the secret goal is, well, secret, a player can be three countries away from their goal without other players realising it.

Secondly, the game's ending can be interesting. When your goal is world domination, the last rounds are usually just some dude inexorably conquering the few countries he's left. While this can happen in T.E.G., there's much more space for 2 or even 3 players to be getting increasingly close to their goals at the same time. Various players can keep pushing to win, with plausible hope of doing so, even a few turns before the game finally ends.

The key word is try.

But I ain't here to talk about original T.E.G.. There's TEG CARDS now! And the box promises:
  • With the same mechanic as traditional TEG a new challenge in playing cards to conquer the planet!
  • TEG cards is a thrilling and very fun card game!
  • If you already know traditional TEG, you'll enjoy this thrilling adventure between 40 countries. The 1st player that achieves their secret goal or common goal will emerge victorious!
The news surprised me, really. Of all the games I would've imagined adapted to playing cards, T.E.G. was last on the list.

On the one side we have a giant game, in a box wide like a human torso, with a huge board representing a world map with 50 countries connected at specific points, 600 tiny winks of different colors, 6 dices, around 70 cards of different kinds y a rulebook of 9 pages at tiny typeface.

On the other hand, a game that fits in my palm, consisting entirely of less than 150 cards and a rulebook of, say, 2 pages at the same typace. That claims to play just like the original game, and has no board.

According to this interview, the central difference is that T.E.G. Cards is designed for us to "play in the bus, during a trip, by the swimming pool, anywhere" and can be "played from beginning to end in half an hour." The idea doesn't sound wrong, and yet, as a T.E.G. player I asked myself how can we call T.E.G. a thing that lasts less than three hours and during which you don't have to worry about pieces falling from the table/getting lost.

And I still wonder, 'cause I haven't played it yet. But I did read the rulebook and examined the cards and I can't deny I'm completely impressed.

Basic scheme for adapting a tabletop game.
With a picture I just took and another one I found here.

And it shouldn't surprise that the games aren't exactly identical. But here's the thing… They're disgustingly similar! The adaptation, it seems, was made by some Guillermo Santos dude, who got a couple things pretty right.

The map

We don't see it, but it's there. When a player controls a country, they have that country's card, with the country's name, the continent it belongs to, and a list of all its bordering countries. This means that by just looking at a country's card (they're public and for all players to check) the player knows which countries they can attack from there and which they can be attacked from.

Of course, lacking a visual aid like a printed map, things can get confusing. That's why T.E.G. Cards' map is a simplified one: all countries inside a continent can fight against each other, and some countries can also attack other continents' countries. So the map's basically six groups of interconnected countries, with some bridge-countries as well.

The map's clearly not the same as in the original game. But that's not the important thing: what matters is this synthetic map gets closer to the simplified map that players usually imagine when thinking of the game's feel.

The dices

The great element of chance in T.E.G.. They're now replaced with dice cards, which each have 3 numbers in decreasing order. They're evidently an important part of the game: of the 137 cards, 56 are dice cards.

The combat between two players happens comparing two dice cards that players select from their hands. The one being attacked can even choose to grab the first dice card from a deck facing down, to leave the result completely to chance. The concept, again, is the same as the original: chance, with a certain degree of player control.

The armies

Completely gone! And yet also present. In T.E.G., players want to get countries 'cause that means they get more armies to spread over their territories during reinforcements. Armies basically mean more dices to throw in battle, so more chances to actually win, so your strategy gets increasingly independent from luck.

The same concept appears in T.E.G. Cards. The more countries you control, the more dice cards you draw during reinforcements, the more chances you get when attacking (or defending, of course). So the armies are gone because they were mere intermediates between country-controlling and increasing chances. And simpler forms can't afford to have redundant intermediates between central parts of the game.

Now there actually is a factor that disappears, and that's the spatial distribution of forces. In T.E.G., some of your countries are weak while others are strong, and it's up to you to decide which are which, by placing more or less armies on them. In T.E.G. Cards, any of your countries has the same chance at wining in a battle against any country of a given player. So there's some content loss. Small price to pay, I say.

The adaptation

And now I get to the part I was thinking of when I wrote "metaphorical thought" in the title. I'm interested in videogames because I'm interested in systems of rules as artistic objects capable of representing worlds, real or imaginary, but totally inhabitable by the player/spectator that dares to do so.

Videogames have a lot in common with tabletop games, and it's generally pointed out that the only real difference is tabletop games require players to remember and willingly respect the rules, while videogames can remember and impose their rules themselves (except for some neat experiments, like Asphyx, the game that politely asks you to press ESC if you breathe when your character's undewater).

That's why rules appeal to me. And I think it's great to see how, through the genres (from dices and winks and board, to cards) it's possible to maintain with such fidelity a set of rules in order to generate, with so dissimilar elements, similar experiences.

I think it requires a great metaphorical capacity to represent, with playing cards, the most iconic situations in a game traditionally played over a mappa mundi. I think in that gesture there's an originality (and yes, I speak of originality referring to what's essentially a copy) and a poetic potency of the kind most needed by us who want to make good videogames, and games in general, and any kind of art.