Arcs Avec Arc
Where last week’s examination of Arcs, the upcoming title from Cole Wehrle and Leder Games, focused on Arcs as an experience meant to be completed within a single session, today we’re delving into the “arcs” of Arcs. That’s right: I’ve completed two full campaigns. That’s six plays, a few branching narratives, and two galaxies brought under the reign of a single power.
I have some thoughts.
Somewhere in the furor following the beginning of Arcs’ Kickstarter campaign and the publication of my initial writeup, somebody — I believe it was Wehrle — likened the pulling-apart of Arcs into two separate modes to the distinction between Matt Leacock’s Pandemic and Rob Daviau’s reimplementation of the same system as Pandemic Legacy. The gist of the comparison was that neither Pandemic nor Pandemic Legacy could be considered superior or inferior to the other. They were the same game located in different contexts; one, a single-session puzzle game, the other, a campaign game. The same could be true of Arcs.
Perhaps. As always, there’s some risk to evaluating a prototype, not least because the final product will invariably differ from the rudimentary version placed in my hands. In the case of single-session Arcs, that meant a sturdy trick-taking system that wrestled against the player at every turn, simulating a swelled-corpse bureaucracy attempting to bob to the top of a barrel of rival bloaters, alongside an absolutely perfect dice system that every competitor should shamelessly rip off as soon as humanly possible, and a whole lot of smaller but not at all inconsiderable problems, from technologies that hardly crept into the game to a somewhat uninteresting scoring system that left me wanting more. Given Leder and Wehrle’s track record, there’s some faith to be had that these will be ironed smooth or creased into more formidable textures before the game’s publication.
And yet, and yet — the campaign feels like Arcs coming home.
This isn’t a statement without caveats. Much work remains to be done. The slice I was shown was bled through with killing scratches. There were incomplete descriptions and conflicting imperatives, the sort that get players arguing over one interpretation or another. Had the game already existed, we might have sought out an errata. Even an errata might not have solved the larger problems. Foremost among them, multiple setups where the advantages and goals were distributed so unevenly that some players entered the fight with no hope but to serve as minor seconds to somebody else’s tale of ascent. Will that be fixed? Maybe. It’s a daunting task. The way Wehrle has outlined this tale of collapse and recovery, one gets the sense that toppled potentates might not have much of a knee remaining to force themselves back onto.
Still. With an arc, Arcs begins to make much better sense.
It works like this. In the beginning, the Old Empire is collapsing. Like all dying things in the early stages of decay, it hasn’t yet diagnosed the tingling of its fingertips or the acedia that sours its moods. As in Oath, the game that Wehrle is riffing on — or perhaps redressing — the Old Empire is indicated by purple ships mixed in among the players’ colors. Unlike Oath, they’re immediately given the character of a frayed rope. They hold territory, but possess only enough ships to delineate its boundaries, no more. Pull too hard and the strand threatens to snap.
Enter the players. What distinguishes you from imperial placidity is your ambition and foresight. Prophets are hardly new to science fiction, from Hari Seldon to Muad’Dib. Whether it’s true prescience or a parlor trick doesn’t matter; the changing of the winds is enough to inform you that something’s coming. The prototype only contained four opening roles, but each forecasts a distinct path through the looming storm. The Imperial Steward hopes to birth the Empire anew through expansion and control. The Ambitious Tycoon senses economic opportunity. The Separatist figures it’s time to go his own way as an outlaw king. And the Librarian hopes to build an edifice to educate future generations. At the outset, everyone is allied, at least in a nominal sense; under the watchful eye of the Old Empire’s ships, you’re prohibited from direct warfare. That doesn’t last.
You play. And for the most part, it’s not unlike the single-session game. If you don’t recall how it works, refer to last week’s piece. Nearly every part survives the transition. The same infuriating card system. The same flashes of brilliant upset courtesy of those beautiful dice. Even, as of the prototype I was sent, the same lukewarm objectives and techs and breakthroughs.
But then something special happens.
At first, it’s the map. It’s bigger. Daunting, even. It takes time to get anywhere, and there are no plot-magic wormholes keeping everybody a stone’s throw or a railgun’s depleted tungsten shot away from one another. The Old Empire’s boundaries are just one segment of the wider galaxy. Within a few turns, the difference between the relative safety of the Empire’s watchful gunships and the lawlessness of the frontier becomes crucial.
The other detail is where the comparison between Arcs and Oath crystallizes. In Oath, there were occasional moments when the magic circle, that imagined bubble that marks off the play-space from reality, expanded in novel directions. Usually, such moments occurred when somebody realized that they couldn’t win, but that they could determine who else did. Kingmaking is often considered a relict malison of older, worse game design, but under the right circumstances it became one of Oath’s grand opportunities. Those “right circumstances” were hard to come by, requiring a dedicated group, multiple sessions, and some degree of role-playing, but they allowed players to negotiate as strongly for second place as they might, under other circumstances, fight for outright victory.
Arcs revels in those moments. It makes them more common, more reachable, less a matter of aligning planets and more a matter of course. Every role has multiple goals. Principally, you have a main objective. For the Separatist, that means carving out a new kingdom of your own. For the Librarian, it means gathering resources and finding some isolated corner to build your Great Library. Accomplish that objective and you win outright. Think of it like a version of Root’s dominance cards, except it functions as intended instead of being the stuff nobody wants to draw from the deck. If nobody accomplishes that personal objective — or if multiple factions do — then the power track from the single-session game matters again. Those scoring objectives and minor awards for killing fungus — all that stuff is a tiebreaker.
This solves so many problems with the single-session game. The blandness of the factions? Gone. Traded for individual goals and opening positions. The way tech seems like too long of an investment for a short game? Now there’s room. You’ll use them later. Those final turns where you’re too isolated from the conflict to have anything to do? Might as well manufacture some extra ships or set up another factory. You might not need them right now, but they’ll benefit you in the next act.
Not that this totally ameliorates every misstep. As I mentioned earlier, it’s balanced like a scale with a feather on one plate and a bowling ball on the other. Losing doesn’t mean total defeat. Often, a partial loss lets you seed the next act’s deck with useful cards or adopt a certain role. If not, it’s possible to pivot to another role entirely, drawn at random from a handful of “seeds” for each act. This spells out the consequences of the conflict, and keeps the role-playing to a minimum. There’s no need to “play along” to make the game function.
The bigger issue is with the objectives themselves. Where Oath leveled the playing field between sessions, Arcs is more woolly, often allowing winning players to continue running the show. There was something edifying about watching my stellar civilization get bigger and bigger, eventually dominating the third act so completely that nobody stood a chance of stopping the tide. My rivals assured me they didn’t feel quite as fortified. At any given time, one player tended to chase their own personal story. Everyone else was relegated to the wings. Whether that will be the case in the finished game is anybody’s guess.
Meanwhile, the card system is still as terrible/excellent as ever. Amusingly, the “intermission” between acts allows players to shore up their positions. After multiple hands prevented you from taking any of the actions you needed, the intermission feels like half of an apology mixed with half of a setup for the next session. The power you gained from objectives isn’t only there to break ties between winning players; it also serves as spending currency, letting you purchase resources or build structures that you lacked the actions to gather or erect previously. In the blink of an eye, a planet you’d only barely reclaimed from malignant space-fungus becomes a functioning metropolis, or an empty hold is filled with necessary weaponry and psionics. In some cases, spending our hard-earned power was as gratifying as playing the game itself, if only because it let us get on with the business of crafting our empire rather than squeezing an occasional drop from the sopped rags of our bureaucracies. It calls to mind the peaceful periods between conflicts in Wehrle’s Pax Pamir or, duh, Oath, when just enough time passes for a new normal to settle over the land before the next batch of upstarts graduates from university.
Despite some misgivings, some balance issues, and the underlying tenuousness of the card system — which is so frustrating but so suitable that I can’t decide from one moment to the next how I feel about it — the three-act game is sturdy and formidable, a work in progress, something I want to follow as it develops, while the single-session game struggles to stand apart from some very considerable peers. I loved how Oath asked players to redefine what was meant by “victory.” I loved even more when it sometimes succeeded.
Arcs asks similar questions. Sometimes it provides answers — albeit as fragmentary transmissions in an alien tongue. I hope they grow clearer as it nears publication. For now, it remains to be seen whether they’ll be decipherable. Or if, upon translation, we’ll like what they have to say.
A prototype copy was provided.