I’ve enjoyed watching That Others May Live grow. The changes that I’ve made in recent weeks make it a better game. But one thing I’ve been adamant about keeping is the unpredictability. As many times I’ve played this thing, no two games are ever alike. Quite often, success or failure are predicated on good decisions and the turn of a friendly or unfriendly card. But occasionally, you are doomed by nothing more than blind chance.
Case in point: This morning I was playing a game where I had done everything supposedly “right”. On Turn 1, I sent in my Sandys to do a bit of trolling in the South Outer Zone in hopes of sniffing out enemy air defenses in the area. None of the NVA took the bait, so on Turn 2, I decided I would send in my rescue helicopters. I gave them one pair of Sandys as an escort and the other pair headed north toward where the downed pilot awaited rescue. Everything was going fine until it happened.
I drew one measly card for the Enemy Search and – BANG! – my pilot was captured by the NVA. On Turn 2 and with barely a chance to get out of the gate, the game was over and I had lost. I could have played a Smoke marker or a Napalm card in Turn 2 to get the Search Level back to zero, but I thought it best to take a small chance – and lost big.
There are other times where you’ll pull off a mission with relative ease. You sneak your helicopters in and everything just goes perfect. Maybe there aren’t enough enemy guns to do much or they’re in the wrong place or maybe the right cards just fall into your lap at the right times. And then there are those games where everything is going smoothly until three or four turns in and suddenly something goes drastically wrong and you’re fighting for your life.
Some players are probably not going to like this extent of variability. For them, maybe every single mission should be a desperate battle and good decisions are always rewarded along with a bit of luck. I can understand that reasoning – you’ve paid your money, read the rulebook, and now you want a proper challenge with maybe some limited variability in service of replayability. Certainly, there are plenty of designers who think the same, and that’s all well and good.
However, I find this approach to design a bit boring. One of my favorite video games growing up was Conflict, a Middle East political simulator that let you become the leader of Israel during the late Cold War era. The thing I loved about Conflict was its variable setup and challenge level. There were times when the game was a cakewalk as your nation was the only stable one in the region and your neighbors were dealing with civil wars and insurrections. On the other hand, the game also threw situations from the start that were nearly impossible to work your way out of. There were times when you would start a game and lose it on the very next turn.
I don’t think TOML is quite that mercurial, but at times it can be unfair. I don’t really have a problem with this, because it reflects the reality of Combat Search and Rescue. Your team is entering an unfamiliar environment with no idea of what’s below the thick jungle canopy awaiting them. Maybe your pilot has managed to come down far away from NVA operations, or the commander is incompetent, or the terrain is too unforgiving to set up gun batteries in time to shoot down your incoming helicopters. Perhaps your pilot has come down in the middle of an area swarming with NVA, like Kenny Fields. Or maybe rescue by conventional means is just simply impossible, like the ordeal of Col. Hambleton.
If there’s one impression I walked away from when reading accounts of CSAR, it was the sheer level of unpredictability of each mission. Often it was only apparent after each mission just how lucky everyone had been. I wanted the player to have the same sense as they started each game of TOML. For those who get it out on the table just a couple of times, I doubt they’ll feel this way about the game. In fact, I expect to get roasted by more than a few reviewers because of this approach.
But I do believe those who play TOML over multiple sessions might find this approach interesting and somewhat reflective of the unpredictable nature of Combat Search and Rescue missions.
There’s a great scene at the end of the movie Unforgiven where Little Bill is about to be gunned down by William Money.
“I don’t deserve to die like this,” whines Bill. And in true Eastwood bad-assery, Money replies, “Deserves got nothin’ to do with it.”
I feel the same way about both sides at the end of each game.