Court is ready to go to the printers, or at least to be sent to the printers after the publisher signs the contract to purchase it.
I just finished collecting together all the design materials that a printer needs to make the cards, rules and box, as per the agreement with Zev at Z-Man Games. When he optioned the design from me last August, the game was only a prototype, and a flawed one at that! Over the past 10 months, Court has gone through too many theme changes to count and about 6 months of rules tweeking in order to fix the multiplayer problem. Unfortunately, the only solution to the problem was to limit it to 2 players.
Court is like Chess. It is a game of maneuvering with cards, where each player is trying to back the other player into a corner where he has no possible play that will save him. However, because the game ending conditions require the winning player to narrow the margin of victory in order to actually bring the game to an end, it is often quite possible to go from losing to winning in one turn. The play time for games range between 5 minutes (when someone makes a big mistake) and 30 minutes (for the intense back-and-forth matches). So, in that respect a game of Court varies like Chess, but with a much lower upper-limit. Court is also different from chess because players don’t have perfect information. As a card game, it involves chance and hidden information. As a result, luck does play a role in Court, contrary to Chess. Thank god though!
The problem with Chess is that the difference in people’s skill level always determines the winner and someone always loses because they make a mistake. So, it can be frustrating and discouraging to play to Chess. Court does have just as many different choices as Chess to make skill significant in determining who wins. But, because you can’t see what the other person has, people can also attribute their loss to bad-luck, or being fooled, not any particular mistake that they make.
Unfortunately, because (known but especially unknown) mistakes ultimately do determine who wins, it doesn’t work well for a multiplayer game. Imagine playing Chess with four people, each with the same set of pieces and the game ended whenever one player captured another player’s king. In that environment, it would be possible for you to lose due to no fault of your own… because someone else lost their king. That would be no fun at all!
Now, you can fix this problem by making it such that only the person who loses his king is eliminated. But, the result is that you encourage gang-up on the leader behavior, or just plain gang-up on one person activity. However, since there is always the victor’s inheritance problem of any strategic alliance to eliminate a player, and any resources that you devote to attacking another player leaves you vulnerable to being attacked yourself, smart players will moderate their unfriendly behavior. But, once someone makes a sub-optimal play, they ruin the game for everyone else by giving an advantage to the person who benefits by that sub-optimal play. Of course, players can react to this by turning on the person who benefits, so there are no doubt some interesting meta-level dynamics here that are worth pondering for the real game enthusiasts. But, for most people, this level of strategy is just plain not fun.
I noticed while playtesting this game that people loved to conspire and eliminate other people’s nobles. People got real satisfaction out of wiping out other people. But, in their exuberance, most people could rarely foresee the full consequence of their actions, so the game would end by surprise, or at least surprise to the person who didn’t see the consequence. This left everyone else (and even the winner sometimes) disappointed, and, in the long term, encourages people to kibitz so as to not lose by someone else’s play.
As a result, the game had a lot of competing gameplay concerns that complicated the game design. Fundamentally, I wanted people to have fun, so I needed to eliminate all the things that would interfere with that such as losing by someone else’s mistake, but also the paralysis that seemed to occur once everyone was at least 2 moves away from ending the game. Unfortunately, I was never able to figure out a way to fix these two problems in multiplayer games without making it more unfun.
The only possible outlet that I can see for solving the problem is to make it a last man standing game. If someone else’s mistake is their own loss, but you are still in the game, then it doesn’t matter how well they play. In fact, them playing poorly actually mixes up the strategic environment since everyone else has to compensate. But, in light of games like Bang! and Illuminati, where you can be (actually or just effectively) knocked out of the game very early because of the ability for everyone to gang-up on one person, I wanted Court to end for everyone all at once. I didn’t want to have people sitting out, while everyone else finishes. Especially, since in most of these games, it is possible (and in fact, more likely) for the game to go on significantly longer after just one person is eliminated, I didn’t want Court to end like that.
But, as a two player game, all these problems become positives. What is mediocre with three or more players becomes excellent for two. Court is an excellent two player game. It is my favorite game that I have made so far because it is excellent as such. It is simple, fast and yet rich with strategic complexity. It is really a game to rival Chess. I actually think it’s better. After all, you only need a pack of cards to play.