Arcs Sans Arc
Whenever I mention Arcs, the upcoming four-letter title from Cole Wehrle and Leder Games, everybody wants to know about the campaign, the three-session “arc” that will chart the ascent of four players amid the decline of a stellar empire. It’s a fascinating premise, and not only because it formalizes the playful and open-ended concept of a non-legacy board game that rolls over from one session to the next that Wehrle introduced in Oath.
This preview is not about that. At some point in development, Arcs was split in two. To mitigate costs and the danger of tossing a gaming group out the airlock before they’ve had a chance to suit up, the campaign is now a day-one expansion. Arcs, the core game anyway, is now a single-session board game. Which up until very recently was just called “a board game.”
How is Arcs sans arc? Let’s take a look.
As you can probably infer from Kyle Ferrin’s inimitable cover art, Arcs is a space game. Where Wehrle has previously tackled colonialism, colonialism, colonialism with animals, and colonialism, he now joins a long lineage of sprawling epics that require a half-dozen hours to complete — often minus the “half” — and an equally extensive genealogy of titles that attempt to compress the duration of those sagas into a more digestible format. Also, space games are really about colonialism, don’t you know? That’s where the 4X moniker began, anyway.
It sounds like a good fit, is what I’m saying. Wehrle has always favored games that examine power structures, and there’s a good reason that so many of our culture’s most cogent examinations of those dynamics are padded beneath the gauze of science fiction. Given that Root allowed Wehrle to soften the blow of industrial overlords, bloody revolutions, and military-industrial corporations, what might he tackle now that every hot-button topic has been untethered from the crush of gravity itself? Religion? Civilization? Multilevel marketing schemes? The sky’s no limit.
So it’s something of a surprise that Arcs opens on vistas that are so… traditional. Everybody has a couple of planets. Some spaceships. A pair of resource cards. A factory and an extractor for producing more spaceships and resources. Nearby, errant wormholes ensure that the map wraps around on itself, all the better for placing contenders within biting range of one another’s throats. The first time we sat down to play Arcs, everybody kept waiting for the twist. Would there be deep asymmetry? Unanticipated commentary? Something revolutionary? The wait lengthened. The quiet became impatient. Where was the redefinition of The Game Itself? Where was the spark?
The closest Arcs gets within that sitting is something akin to a tutorial. It’s as though Arcs has a secret, some answer to a cosmological question, except it isn’t quite sure we’ve covered the quantum calculus necessary to comprehend the necessary steps. As one friend put it, “I feel like the game doesn’t trust me.”
Once or twice every game design generation — a period that covers roughly three to six years — a single question grips multiple designers at the same time. Sometimes the question is mechanical: How far can we push this deck-building thing? Other times the question is more topical: Representation, or why games tend to be so violent, or whether certain topics should be reduced to pretty set dressing at all. As I type this, a handful of designers are wrestling with two questions that are ultimately the same thing. The first: How can we make a civilization game that doesn’t reproduce the same old tropes? Alongside it: When we play a game, what happens if you don’t have as much control as you thought you had?
At its core, Arcs strives to answer those questions with trick-taking.
This shouldn’t be confused with regular trick-taking. Just as Peer Sylvester used trick-taking as the foundation for his supernal Brian Boru, Wehrle repurposes the idea into a launchpad for something broader. Here, the system is pliable, both graspable within minutes and just complicated enough that its first plays will bear witness to the occasional stumble. The basic idea is that everything in your stellar empire can be accomplished via cards of four suits. Mobilization lets you move ships between the map’s systems or bid on the technologies and bonuses currently up for auction. Construction builds stuff and researches new tech. Production extracts resources and repairs ships. Aggression does pretty much what it says on the tin.
If you’ve noted a loose correlation between these suits and the Four X’s of civilization games — eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate — congratulations, you win a mylar baggie of freeze-dried astronaut ice cream. But before we try to eat the stuff without scattering Neapolitan crumbs across the cabin, there’s a significant caveat to consider. In Arcs, it isn’t enough to play a card and take its action. You’re also trying to win tricks. Okay, not tricks, exactly, but the analogy holds up. If you’re the lead player, you play a card and take all of its actions. That might mean conducting three mobilizations. The next player then chooses between following, copying, or pivoting. Following means choosing to play the same suit but with a higher value and taking all of its actions. This is difficult, though, because higher cards yield fewer actions — again, much like in Brian Boru — so following the current suit often means accomplishing less than the lead player. Copying and pivoting aren’t much better. In the first case, your card goes onto the pile face-down. You now get one of the lead suit’s actions. One. Uno. Zilchum. That’s “one” in Martian, because it’s barely better than zilch. Pivoting means playing any other suit and taking only one of its actions, no matter how many actions the card would normally let you take. One, uno, et cetera.
Most of the time, this translates to multiple rounds where you’ll accomplish very little. There are rare turns where you’ll find yourself holding precisely the right card to take multiple actions at once. More often, you’re holding bupkis. You’ll spend half your cards mimicking everybody else’s suits, briefly take lead by following suit at the right moment, and then remember that you don’t want to be lead because you’d rather pivot to an entirely different suit than the one you’re holding.
It feels terrible. It’s bureaucratic paralysis as a game system. Logistical disaster in a fanned hand of cards. Imperial inefficiency codified as a series of tricks. And those bottlenecks and logjams are expressed on the map and on your empire board. Technologies are acquired but go unresearched. Blockading fleets move into position but never begin bombardment. Alien fungus is put to the laser only for the Construction suit to go missing in the hour of your need.
It also feels appropriate. Exemplary, even. All the preceding agony is deliberate. Where most of these space empire games presume godlike command of your personal empire, Arcs argues that a stellar civilization would behave pretty much like a terrestrial civilization. Slowly. Or fast. Or maybe all at once. Or sometimes halfway. Space crusades falter. Resources are raided. Battle dice miss. Or worse, spin around to explode in your face.
Put those two feelings together. Put them in tension. In friction. That’s Arcs as a single-session game. For better and for worse.
Further frustrations-slash-exemplars are found in other corners of Wehrle’s space opera. Take combat. Unlike the bashes in Oath, these space battles are straightforward affairs. The attacker rolls some dice and accepts the outcome. That’s it. The wrinkle is that they choose which dice to roll. There are three offerings. Bombardments inflict damage, but not at very high odds, and there are some half-attack results that need to be added together to have any effect. For bolder captains, Assaults inflict more damage, but also carry the possibility of the defender dealing damage back. Lastly, Raids favor the defender, but may allow the attacker to steal resource or tech cards from the defender’s hold.
Speaking of resources, in lieu of the usual convoluted galactic economy, everything material is printed directly onto another set of cards. Extracting something from a planet means grabbing a card and storing it in your hold, where it occupies space and might be raided. These cards do some heavy lifting. They’re hard to get your paws on, usually requiring multiple hands of play just to move into position, burn out any residual fungus, construct an expensive extractor, and then produce the resource, with each step requiring its own cards and absence of disruptions. Meanwhile, it’s entirely possible that any given stack of resources might run out completely, leaving you no option but to wait for somebody to spend one of their own cards or raid them for it.
But when you’re holding resources, they’re as valuable as any other card. Often more so. These aren’t mere pips on a track. They’re rules-bending tools in their own right. Spending fuel means you can take a free move at the beginning of your turn. Relics and psionics do the same for research or placing bids. Weapons add extra dice to combat, diminishing the probability that your fleet will flail ineffectively at their opposition. In Arcs, resources effectively unshackle you from the game’s core systems, letting you run amok while everybody else is still wrestling their way out from under the lead suit. It’s no wonder everybody’s in a hurry to mine the things.
Insert combat and resources into Wehrle’s trick-taking and the prior frustrations and exemplars are amplified. Now cut the game to half the duration you’re imagining. Lop it again. And again. Arcs doesn’t linger. This isn’t a nebula of a game. It’s a shooting star. A flash, then gone. Five hands. Each consists of five or six cards depending on player count. It’s entirely possible to spend a full half of the game on the grand and noble enterprise of establishing a factory on the surface of a neighboring system. It’s also possible for that endeavor to never quite materialize. More than once, I’ve seen the game conclude largely as it began, plus or minus some minor shifts in the positioning of border fleets. Alternatively, if the cards go your way, maybe you’ll drive a neighboring empire to extinction. I’ve witnessed that, too.
This burns to the heart of what makes the prototype of Arcs intriguing — and so terribly limited when compressed into a single session. I mentioned earlier that techs might be purchased at auction and then never researched. That isn’t uncommon. Why make long-term investments when there’s no long term? Like all of Wehrle’s games, Arcs is a text in its own right, desperate to be read. But it’s only the first chapter. Maybe not even that. Every play has left us wanting more. But not in the sense that we wanted to set it up again; rather, that we wanted to continue this play. It’s not only that Arcs is short. It’s that it seeks to compress something epic into the confines of something minor. Its very title, “Arcs,” speaks of duration. Change. Flux. In its current format, it’s less of an arc. It’s a flicker. In Leder titling parlance, call it Wink.
Next week, we’ll be looking at Arcs as a game that takes multiple sessions to complete.
A prototype copy was provided.