Every Year, like clockwork, a new Wild West "game system" comes out. I've sold Wild West game figures for almost 20 years, and I've seen what seems like that many games come and go.
The thing that has endured, since 1992, is Desperado. Sure, it's not the best rules ever written; there have always been grainy areas which we've all shrugged off with a laugh and a pronouncement of "hey, it's only Desperado." Maybe therein lies its charm. Desperado gave us permission to have fun.
You may not remember what came before Desperado. First there was Boot Hill, a TSR roleplaying game. A lot of people enjoyed Boot Hill campaigns, but as a tabletop skirmish game, it required a lot of tweaking. For one thing, combat was broken into increments of a fraction of a second.
Then there was "Once Upon a Time in the West," a small, beige book with incomprehensible rules. There was a shot clock that the user was supposed to assemble; I never could make mine work.
Then came Desperado. It started as a crib sheet that Tom Kelly used to run shootouts for the dealers after-hours at the big Eastern US conventions. He had to be persuaded by his friends to actually publish the rules, and when he did, they were comb-bound and xeroxed, in the finest 1980's style of wargame publication (it was 1992). It came in two "editions," which were actually just one rules set, the second booklet being special rules, errata, and scenarios. Together, and against all odds when put alongside the glitz that the industry was beginning to turn out, the two volumes sold thousands of copies.
Why did it sell so well? I think it's because it made us laugh. You can easily tell if people are having real fun or just "theoretical fun." In the case of "theoretical fun," people come away at the end of the game exhausted, rubbing their tired eyes, saying, "that was interesting; I like the way the initiative system works. I think I could adapt that to the Boer War." People who are having real fun do one telltale thing: they laugh. I've yet to see a Desperado game where people didn't laugh. Not only do they laugh, they practically trip over one another in haste to tell their friends what happened to lefty behind the outhouse.
The rules were easy to learn, and even if it lacked detail in certain areas (short lists of modifiers, hand-to-hand combat system that was somewhat of an afterthought), it put detail where it was most appreciated by the players. The hilariously (or brutally) specific wound chart, the chance of getting pinned under your horse, the ability to set fires and throw dynamite, the ability to challenge your opponent to a showdown in the middle of the street while all play stopped and everyone watched; all of these things endeared Desperado to a generation of gamers.
There is another aspect of Desperado I find extremely appealing. I think it captures the American mythology of the West very well. It's not about "factions," it's about individual gunfighters.
Think of movies like "Rio Bravo" or "The Outlaw Josey Wales." The protagonists aren't neat and orderly factions of "outlaws," or "cowboys," any more than they are Austrian grenadiers or Portuguese Cacadores. They're a ragtag band of individuals who work toward a common goal. If you study the historical outlaws and cowboys, you don't have to delve very deep before you realize that they too were individuals, each with a different story. Our experience of the West should not be a paramilitary exercise where one "unit" goes up against another. That makes for boring, and rather un-American storytelling.
For all of these reasons, I'll continue to sell Desperado, and the game products I have planned for 2016 and 2017 will be built on the foundation that was laid with these humble rules. Be looking for Gunfighter's Ball, a system of short scenarios and optional rules, as well as a system of terrain and figures, all of which produce quick, fun games with lots and lots of gunfighting.
I can't wait to hear what happened to your character in the next Desperado game!