Lost in the Shuffle: The Grand Melee
Before Daily MTG, before MagicTheGathering.com, before the Internet, there was The Duelist, a print magazine dedicated to Magic and other games. An occasional feature in The Duelist was Magic creator Richard Garfield's Lost in the Shuffle, a sort of game designer's diary from a guy whose thoughts about games spawned not only Magic but the genre of trading card games in general—in other words, an invaluable resource for anybody interested in games and game design.
It's always interesting looking back to the game's beginnings—to the origins of anything, really—because of the seemingly haphazard way that some ideas stick around (say, releasing expansions) and others fall by the wayside (ante comes to mind). This Lost in the Shuffle, from the very early Duelist #2 in Summer of 1994, discusses the very first occurrence of one of those things that's still around, albeit only very occasionally: the Grand Melee tournament format.
I won't bore you with the details, because the rules Dr. Garfield lays out below are surprisingly close to the Grand Melee rules today, but the upshot is that Grand Melee lets literally any number of people play in a single massive game of Magic, with multiple turns going on simultaneously. This spectacle has appeared several times at the Gen Con gaming convention in Indianapolis.
Dr. Garfield's story of the very first Grand Melee, at a small local con called RadCon in 1994, reveals a lot about the origins of the format, the epic scenes (and occasional logistical nightmares) it entails, and Garfield's thoughts on the joys and pitfalls of multiplayer play. You can read about more recent Grand Melees here and here. And if you're curious about the modern rules, you can head to the Rules page and download the Comprehensive Rules (not for the faint of heart!), which contain the complete Grand Melee Variant rules.
Daily MTG Editor
Unless specifically designed to avoid them, multiplayer games often fall prey to certain problems. In group games, players tend to team up. Not everyone sees this as a problem, of course. The game then becomes a matter of diplomacy—but when you have played as many games of Diplomacy as I have they begin to run together and the strategies become predictable. This is particularly true when your actions can affect any player equally. Some multiplayer games handle this situation by restricting the player's choices when attacking: in Cosmic Encounters, for example, you draw your defender randomly each turn, and even in Diplomacy your enemies are effectively restricted by your geographic location.
A second problem lies in motivating players to take the offensive. Games in which aggressive action may cause losses for all involved players frequently lead to the quietest player winning, which is hardly the recipe for an exciting game. To counter this effect some games make aggressive play profitable, as in Risk, where players are rewarded with cards which give them extra armies.
Many of the group variations of Magic I have seen suffer from both of these flaws. In particular, I do not regard very highly the variation of Magic where players can attack anyone and the last player in the game wins, because it encourages unbalanced teams and rewards conservative play. Melee Magic, however, successfully counters these problems, and allows a huge number of people to play in the same game.
Players sit so that each has other players to the left and right. Each player can only launch a creature attack on the player to the left. All other magical effects have a range of two people. A spell which refers to your opponent, such as Black Vise or Lifetap, requires you to choose which opponent (within two) the spell will affect upon being cast. Afterwards, the affected player cannot be changed, and if he or she is removed from the game, the spell is discarded. All spells which refer to "both" or "all" players affect the caster, the two players to the left, and the two players to the right.
You get one point if your left-hand neighbor leaves the game, and one and a half points for surviving. Note that you get the point for your left neighbor leaving even if someone else performs the coup de grace with a Lightning Bolt. If playing for ante, you get the ante of the player to your left when he or she is removed from the game, even if you die simultaneously, and you get to keep your ante only if you are the survivor. In addition, when a player leaves the game, all of his or her cards and tokens are removed from play (though the effect of those weird permanent-altering interrupts, such as Magical Hack and Deathlace, linger on).
Note that in a three- or four-player game the survivor wins, but when adding the score for a series of games the number of points for surviving may make a difference, and the player that eliminates the most players will accumulate the largest score. Naturally you will want to vary seating order between games, since it will make a big difference to the play.
The seating arrangement and spell range in Melee Magic allow several players to take their turns at the same time. This is because a person three to your left or right is out of your spell range anyway. So you can have a third of the players (rounded down) taking turns simultaneously. When they are finished the players to their left take their turns. This allows an indefinite number of people to compete in a reasonable amount of time in the same game. However, while simultaneous play speeds up the game, it also requires a much larger number of judges. When enough players drop out, a "turn" is dropped and one of the judges is removed from the game.
The world's first Grand Melee was held at RadCon, a small science fiction convention in Richland, Washington. This was possibly the world's largest card game ever, and certainly the world's largest Magic game to date that we know of. The Grand Melee was a 40-person game of Melee Magic, with 13 judges standing behind the 13 players whose turn it was at any given time in the beginning. Every third person to fall would cause us to drop a judge. We also removed tables as the group shrank, another unusual feature of this format.
So you can appreciate the magnitude of this, here's a sketch of the 40 people and 13 judges sitting around various tables. Pretty impressive, no? We set the game up in a row this way because we ended up using every single table in the gaming area. In this age of large numbers, 40 doesn't seem big. When setting up the game and the number of players began to sink in, I asked Snark why he didn't stick a muzzle on me when I began talking about a 40-person game. But in the afterglow, after a good night's sleep, I regret nothing.
Whenever a player left the game, the player on their right received a booster pack and a victory point. In addition, there was a grand prize for the most points, which went to Hoi Nguyen with 7 kills. There was a second-place prize that went to Al with 6 kills. There was an honorable mention which went to Joel, who was the Melee's sole survivor. We recommend that the survivor get some award in these competitions to provide motivation for the last few participants to win and not throw the competition. However, it is vital the winner isn't just the survivor. I have cold chills thinking of 40 people bringing their "let others do the killing; I am going to endure" decks to a competition like this.
The game lasted about five hours, which is typical for a normal tournament of this size. The dynamics were unusual and fascinating to watch. In some parts of the circle, it was a waiting game, with creatures just standing around, while other areas were rife with spells flying back and forth and attacks surging backwards around the circle as players would attack and leave themselves open to receive attacks in turn.
The spell range produced some interesting effects, as players had more to deal with than their immediate neighbors. Screams of anguish erupted when one player played Balance, a disaster with a total blast range of five people. I don't know what became of the Balance player, but two of the people in the blast area were the finalists in the game, Hoi and Joel. There was also a sequence where players A, B, C, and D were sitting in a row and A Disintegrated C, D Power Sink the Disintegrate, and C Power Sink D's Power Sink—after all, B then gets the victory point! I suspect that there were actually a number of these sorts of exchanges.
Sometimes these assaults on more distant opponents didn't work out as planned: one player told me he invested everything he had into getting rid of a player two seats away because the person had Karma in play and was nickel-and-diming him to death with it, only to discover that the next player in line had two Karmas in play. Bummer!
Often we'd see a player casting healing spells on an attacker, to fend off a worse opponent who would come into range if that player died. One player had a horde of red creatures out and the person to his left had a Circle of Protection: Red. The players downstream of the Circle were making sure that it stayed in place, because they didn't have adequate defenses against the red horde. There was a collusion that arose about midway during the game where one player's Dwarven Warriors caused the player downstream to have unblockable Knights. This did many players in, and there was a round of applause when someone Fireballed the Dwarves to death.
Cards could change controllers often. There was a Ghazbán Ogre wandering about the table; each turn it would go to the player with the most life within two players in either direction. One The Hive, Hoi's, transferred ownership five times between three or four different players in the course of the game because of Steal Artifact and such.
The end game was particularly fun to watch, since by the time the circle dwindled to three or four players, everybody had a well-developed territory. Each player's strategy was out on the table and deck design and play skill were far more important than the luck of the draw. It was a bit like watching a group of warlords that had vanquished many foes and brought their armies vast distances to meet over the bodies of the fallen in one final titanic battle.
Melee Magic has a completely different feel from any style of play I have seen. While final battles of a tournament are often exciting, they occasionally are dull as one person simply gets a couple of bad draws. In the Grand Melee, if a player had a bad land draw he or she was gone early—one player never did draw a land though he survived about 10 turns. Those who survive have scraped and dug and been petty and been bold and still hold their battle scars. They clash at the height of their power: they have oodles of land and huge armies in position. The game was so big that one player couldn't take in the whole thing. In fact, the difference between the winners and losers was often how quickly people grasped the local dynamics as they migrated to new parts of the board.
To those interested in setting up a Grand Melee, I have some suggestions and some words of caution. Time limits are probably necessary because the players could spend an awfully long time trying to assess the situation. However, the two-minutes-per-turn limit we used at RadCon really hurt players who waited to cast a sorcery until after a battle which ran too long. Also, the movement of and dropping of judges are both topics which have to be settled before starting. At RadCon, keeping the judges moving smoothly was tricky, since it was often hard to tell if everybody had finished their turns. We started by holding our hands up and switched to flags after some of the Wizards crew made them. Even then, the crowd of spectators sometimes made it hard to spot the judges. It also proved important for a player to watch the other players nearby, both the two in either direction that he or she could affect, and the next player or so beyond them. This turned into a logistical problem for those of us running the game: we spent some of the play time having people move their cards from one table to another so we could remove tables as people dropped, to keep the remaining players within sight of each other. Finally, if a judge was dropped after a player to a player's right finished a turn, then the next judge back would be three players to the right—meaning each of them got another turn before the judge got to the first player. This meant that each time a judge was dropped, a player or two would lose a turn. This turned out to be important in the end game, and was sometimes an unpleasant surprise in the beginning.
Despite these problems, the Grand Melee at RadCon was a lot of fun. Many want to see a similar event run at other Cons, and I recommend it. And when we do do it again, we might check with Guinness and see about setting a record.