Sunday, October 09, 2005

Peas and Carrots

Chuck's wife was out of town, so he came over to play some of the new titles we didn't get in at our "WBC West" retreat in August. Perhaps the most anticipated (and tragically late by one stinking day) was Crusader Rex, the Columbia block game on one of the many Crusades that European rulers sent to the Levant in the Middle Ages. While I think this is certainly a topic worth designing a game on, I do have to wonder at the timing, given our most recent Crusade in Iraq (although in this case, we've replaced Saving Jerusalem as the excuse with Fighting Terrorism. Not much of a change, really).

A random draw gave me the (currently) favored Saracens, in a delightful pea green shade (the Franks are the carrots). I started out with a bold three-front advance from Aleppo, Damascus, and Egypt, only to see the southern and northern thrusts blunted rather badly. However, I did manage to get several castles along the coast that were undefended, as well as many of the inland castles. While these don't really help you win directly, they do allow you to keep your units on the board in the winter, which I found was a very good thing. The coastal fortresses also prevent the Franks from having operational flexibility to shift units from one part of the board to the other.

On the second turn, I used a 3 card to take Jerusalem (with the help of a few very good rolls, making up for my earlier crap rolling), and that was essentially it for the south end of the board other than one late stab by Chuck toward Egypt. The rest of the game saw the Saracens take Tripoli with Saladin himself, and a very sneaky siege of Antioch that saw the Assassins remove the last pip on the defending unit, just before the German crusaders showed up in force. The resulting siege and battles saw the Germans decimated to the point that, while Antioch returned to Frank control, Aleppo was never truly threatened.

Further south, the French finally decided to show up, and they tried to take back Tripoli. Saladin and his brother harried the attackers, retreated into the fort, took a little damage from storming, but a Jihad refreshed both units enough to hold off the French. The Brits finally drew their last unit in the penultimate turn, but Chuck had such bad cards on the last turn that he was doomed as soon as a relieving force eliminated the French threat. The Saracens won with 5 of the 7 victory castles under their control.

The biggest problem Chuck had was in not drawing his crusader units in a timely fashion. Of course, I did everything I could to prevent this by playing Mud cards on the last card play to stick Chuck with too many units in a given location. This didn't work quite as well as I might have hoped, but I did end up returning enough units to Chuck's pool that his odds for successful draws went down. The other key was getting enough castles to support the units I had on the board, and figuring out where the critical castles to prevent threats to my "home" areas of Damascus, Aleppo, and Egypt.

The other great news was that we finished this game within 3.5 hours. Part of this was due to a great play aid on the 'Geek (thanks, fubar!), use the v1.1 2-page aid there. We literally were able to play within 10 minutes, and neither player had read the rules in the previous month. I think we had five situations where we had to check the rulebook itself. I figure our next playing will take less than three hours, which is great for evening play. I really liked Hammer of the Scots, and this game is even better.

Next up was Winter War, the most recent of the Battlelines series from Lost Battalion. This is a very cool system marred by atrocious component values and perhaps the worst ruleset ever. And this is not an exaggeration. I picked up the very first game, Drive on Stalingrad, at WBC a couple of years ago and literally would not have been able to figure it out had I not gone to a demo. Even Walt Mulder's extensive rewrite does little to help, with multiple mentions of the same rules and terms and an example of play that requires a specific game in the series. Fortunately, once you have navigated the labyrinthine ruleset, the system itself is like nothing else on the market, and is good fun to play. Because the missions are relatively short, you can easily pick up the game and set it up again if time is an issue.

DoS is a very cool game, but I felt that the Russians had little if any chance to win. Also, because of the period, the Germans are always on the offensive and the Soviets on the defensive. The next two games, which I don't own, cover Stalingrad itself and the Soviet Uranus offensive that encircled the city. Winter War covers the German attempts to relieve the city, and the missions are a mix of both sides attacking, which is why I was attracted to this particular game.

Lost Battalion has their own card press, and the overal quality of the cards they use is pretty low. While the cards seem like they'll hold up in their current condition for a little while, that condition is pretty bad, with lots of damage around the card edges. However, they do shuffle well, and all of the necessary information (and there is a lot of information on every card) is presented clearly, with the exception of the damage capability of German units, which blends into the background of the flavor photo on the card. Later games, such as Battlegroup, are much better in quality, but have had serious color registration issues - my card backs had several different discernable colors, and the replacement deck they sent was only marginally better (although the company did offer to refund my money).

The game is played almost exclusively with cards. In fact, the only other thing you need (which isn't included) are markers to keep track of a few things - in general, five or six markers per player is more than adequate. Lost Battalion has started shipping markers with their newer games, hopefully they will start including them in a second edition of Battlelines in the future, although this is a small nit compared to the rules/component issues. Each mission starts with drawing a mission card, that describes how to lay out terrain cards, how they are connected (there is no way to show this directly with the terrain cards, but with only five to ten terrain cards in a mission, I've never had a problem), who is the attacker, starting forces, and how many points taking the enemy objective is worth.

Each player gets a unit deck that represents the forces within a specific military organization, along with a variety of other types of cards. Units come in a variety of types, and are organized into units that have specific icons. Some are very specific as to which other units they can coexist at a terrain location with (spades, moons, hearts), while others can be attached to any unit stack (diamonds). The other cards in the deck allow for "response" cards, action cards, terrain cards to help your position, and attachment cards that expand the capabilities of a given unit. All cards include a "general" random number, random numbers used in combat, a number to determine the number of actions a player can take in their turn, and whatever information the specific card type requires.

Each turn consists of a player pulling a card and checking the orders number, which simulates the operational flexibility of the unit. The Germans typically will get two or more orders, while the Russians typically get one or two. Each order can be used for a variety of things: discarding a card, drawing a card, playing an action card from the hand, playing unit cards down to friendly controlled terrain, and executing the text on a unit card. A typical unit will have between one and five lines of text, which are executed in order when that unit is activated. In some cases, a unit can affect a friendly unit by moving or advancing (and taking other units with it), or drawing artillery fire with Observers. In other cases, a unit will have a shot at an action if they can get a specific random number draw first. Artillery units can barrage from adjacent terrain card, headquarters can bring in units from the discard pile if they are of the same unit, and also reorder a certain number of cards at the top of the draw pile (very useful for random draws, as you can imagine). Finally, purple attachment cards can add lines of text, as well as adding attack or defense strength, cover, hits, etc.

Combat comes in three flavors: direct, indirect, and shock. Direct attacks are the most complex. First, a unit has to have the Combat action on their card (or on an action card played from the hand). The defender is the unit on the top of the defenders stack in the same location. Next, players determine who will fire first by comparing cover values (the tree icon on the terrain and occasionally the card itself) plus a random number card. The attacker uses their green attack number if the target is "soft" (has a green hexagon defense value) or blue if hard (a blue shield). Both players draw cards, the attacker adding the appropriate attack random number to their attack value, the defender adding to their defensive value plus the defensive value of their terrain. For each multiple of the defender value the attacker achieves, the defender draws a card to determine damage, given at the bottom of the card. Assuming the defender survives and holds, the roles are then reversed and repeated.

Combat resolution is a bit convoluted at first, but is very straightforward once you've done it a couple of times. For every attacker multiple, the defender draws one card and checks the damage line. If the line specifies a number of hits, the unit's damage capability is checked to see if the unit is eliminated. If the unit survives, the same draw will also specify specific numbers that must be drawn in order for the unit to hold. If multiple cards are drawn, the random number drawn must be on all original damage cards. For example, a unit that can take three damage (and has already taken one hit) takes two damage draws. The first card is "1 Hit, Hold on 2, 3, 6", and the second is "Hold on 1, 3". The "hit" card is placed underneath the unit to show that the next hit will eliminate it. Next, a random number card is drawn to see if the unit will hold or be removed for the rest of the mission. In this case, since the only number that is on both damage cards is "3," that is the number that the defender needs to draw to keep the unit in place. If the unit is eliminated, the opposing player takes the card and adds the victory points (given in a blue diamond) to his total.

Shock attacks use the red numbers and tend to be made by special action cards, such as airstrikes, and have no return fire. Indirect attacks use yellow values, are made through Barrage or Observer actions, and also have no return fire. Artillery is often only allowed to attack when friendly units are in the same terrain as the target, or if the cover value of that terrain/unit is below a certain level. Some artillery can directly target enemy artillery, bypassing the "may only attack unit on top of the stack" rule that normally protects artillery and HQ units. Otherwise, combat is resolved in the same way.

When one player's draw pile is exhausted, the mission is over. Players score points based on how well the offensive does, and occasionally if the defender manages to make a raid on the attacker's base. The basic format is 2x points if one player controls the objective terrain uncontested at mission end, or just x if the defender takes the attacker's base or the attacker is contesting the objective. Points are also earned for controlling non-base/objective terrain (based on the terrain card) and for eliminating enemy units. As you can imagine, the defender wants to cycle cards as quickly as possible, while the attacker wants to take terrain as quickly as possible.

As you can see, this is a pretty cool system, with lots of opportunity for massive turns of fortune. A couple of examples: In an earlier game, Chuck is the Germans and has been using action cards to generate extra orders, very bad news for the Soviets. After a few draws, Chuck has managed to get a whopping eight orders, a very large number. The Soviets, however, have a response card that reduces orders to 1, much to the Germans' chagrin. In our game yesterday, Chuck Plans by reordering the first three cards in the stack to enable a particularly nasty artillery barrage, but the Soviets play a card that forces the German to Waste the top two cards of the deck, screwing up the attack.

Sadly, I'm finding that, with these two sets at least, that the Soviets are mostly a punching bag for the Germans. In our game yesterday, Chuck won in three missions, with the Soviets unable to score a single point. To be fair, the Soviet units are worth about a third of the German units, but it is very hard to eliminate them since they have so many hits they can take. Also, the Germans have very few units (typically four) with a given organization icon, all of the rest are diamonds. As such, they can stack units pretty freely compared to the Soviets. Finally, the Soviets have fewer orders on average and smaller hand size. I also noticed that the Soviets have a response card that cancels air attacks by the Germans, but the Germans' deck doesn't have any cards that make air attacks! In essence, a card that you have to burn an order on to get out of your hand in a deck that is already at a serious disadvantage.

I suspect I'm missing some very basic strategy (like choosing your initial forces, which seems to be obvious: pick one icon and hope you don't get your HQ pulled at the start). Otherwise, I felt like either the mission didn't allow me to protect my terrain (four units to defend three areas), or my units had been so decimated by cards off in the withdrawn area (units can't come back unless you play a Medic card, which of course the Sovs don't have) or in the deadpile. As such, unit cohesion can take a huge hit in the first mission that is very difficult to recover from. But the real problem is that the German units are very strong and very hard to take out. In our game, in three missions, I never even saw a German unit withdrawn, but at least 12 cards of the Soviets were out. You would think this would work in their favor, but in this case the Germans attacked in the first two missions and the Soviets attacked in the third when deck size needed to be bigger.

Perhaps these are the least balanced modules in this system, although Uranus would be a lot like Drive, only with the Soviets constantly attacking, and Streets has very difficult terrain to navigate, making attacks by Soviet units problematic. Still, I felt like I never had the faintest chance to score any VP, much less win. In our first DoS game, the Soviets got lucky with a couple of damage draws on German units and there was a chance, albeit slim, for them to win, but otherwise the Germans have won handily every time.

I may try to find out if I'm simply misunderstanding how this game is played, but in general I'm very disappointed that Winter War was even less balanced than DoS. And I'm sorry, but anyone who suggests that two out of four separate games in a series are not balanced and I should try those after being burned twice is welcome to buy my copies. Still, the system is so promising that I will make the effort to get it to work as I can only imagine it was intended to.

So, one fairly good game (although I do wish that Chuck had had better luck in his unit draws in Crusader Rex, as well as his very poor siege rolling), and one dog. Still, the company was great, and Chuck bribes my wife for my time by taking us out for breakfast first! Yay! Thanks for playing, Chuck, we'll have to do this again soon.

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