Monday, January 23, 2006

Command & Colors: Ancients - First Impressions

I P500 most GMT titles (other than monster games or games with exceptionally high complexity), and this was one I was really leery of preordering. I own both Battle Cry and Memoir '44, both very closely related to this title. The earlier games cover the American Civil War and ETO WWII respectively, and I don't know that either period is well represented in either game.

I liked BC to a point, although I wondered why they even bothered with Cavalry. The problem was that you really had no reason to put your units in harm's way. M44 addressed this problem with the addition of objectives, but you still had the problem of basically throwing your units into the meatgrinder and hoping they would survive. While this can be a faithful simulation of some situations in WWII (Omaha Beach is an excellent example), it doesn't make for a particularly interesting or competitive game. I actually found M44 to be even more luck dependent than BC, and it has gotten into my "sell" pile despite really nice production values. I have never played the original game, nor am I aware of what the differences between it and its descendent titles are.

GMT, being a wargame company, isn't quite so good with euro-style production values. I think that part of the problem is simply that they don't have the contacts or volume to make plastics cost-effective, and that's OK. What they ended up doing with C&C:A is using wooden blocks with stickers on each side. This is a cost effective idea compared to plastics, but on the other hand you really don't need to have four blocks to make up a unit if you can realign the block to represent depleted strength, so it could have been even more cost effective to use somewhere between 1/3 and 1/4 of the block count.

Another somewhat bizarre idea was to use small blocks for foot units, medium squares for mounted, large for elephants, and rectangular for chariots and leaders. I understand that by making mounted units a different size, they become easily differentiated on the board, and the same goes for the other large blocks. What is a mess is trying to figure out the differences between the various light units (archers, slingers, light infantry, auxilia) on the board. The symbols are all quite small and I am still having trouble differentiating between auxilia and light infantry after a couple of practice games. Making things even more complicated is the use of different art for the Carthagian and Roman units, so that means there are actually eight different stickers just for the light units! Medium and heavy foot have at most four types, and these are easily identified, the main problem is the lights. I do think that the huge elephant counters do a great job of representing just how enormous these beasties looked on the battlefield, so that was money well spent. Note that unlike Columbia Games' titles, the blocks don't hide what units are, the stickers are on both sides.

The rest of the components are pretty much right on. The rules are pretty well written, and introduce several new concepts (see below). The player aid cards have a tremendous amount of info on them, but I suspect they could have put a terrain key on the side that explains what dice symbols are effective against what units. M44 does a great job of this by including the terrain info on extra cards. I also would have liked to have the various situations for leader loss checks as well, this doesn't take up a lot of space.

The cards are very nice, with minimal artwork (the M44 cards do nothing for me), and some require so much text that artwork is a secondary concern at any rate. I am a bit confused by exactly what the helmet on some of the cards actually allows me to do (is it only to allow detaching a leader from a unit? That seems kind of lame, but I haven't worked too much with it yet). So far, the cards seem pretty clear and I haven't had to look up what they do in the reference section of the manual yet.

The new rules differ in a few ways:

1) Battle Back. Now you have to worry about whether or not you give your opponent a free shot when you attack up close. If they aren't forced to retreat or wiped out, a unit in close combat may be able to battle back. This makes going after the very strong heavy or medium foot units a risky proposition.

2) Retreats. First, units retreat by "moves" not by spaces. For light cavalry with their move of 4 spaces, a single retreat flag may result in being sent right off of the board, and two retreat flags almost certainly will do it. I suspect these units will mostly shoot from a distance. Second, you can ignore at least one flag result with some units based on type or whether or not they have two or more supporting units near them. This makes keeping a coherent line extremely important.

3) Leaders and Cards. Some cards allow you to activate a leader in a particular area of the board along with a string of adjacent units. Again, cohesion is a big deal now.

4) Evasion. Light units and most cavalry/chariots can now choose to retreat a couple of hexes in exchange for ignoring sword, flag, and leader results. Very historical, and an excellent choice for light cavalry to avoid being run off of the board entirely.

5) Ranged combat. Pretty much exclusively only available to light units (there is a Roman "war machine" unit). In most cases, movement reduces the effectiveness of ranged combat. A few units can attack from three hexes away, but otherwise this game requires closing with the enemy.

6) Elephants. Tons of rules for these, my favorite is that if an elephant is required to retreat it has a decent shot at damaging pretty much everyone nearby. Cavalry and chariots aren't too fond of them, the horses get a tad nervous. One hit, though, is enough to take out these big boys, so you want to pick your battles with them. There are other special units (warriors, essentially medium foot with attitude; war machines, and chariots, all with special rules).

In play, these new rules make me feel like you are rewarded for effective tactics, unlike M44 where I felt like the card draw and the rolls were the primary factors and tactics were not as important to win. A cohesive line, effective use of your light units and cavalry, special units, evasion, use of leaders, all of these things play a big role in whether or not you can win. I was very nervous about trying out this title, as my last attempt to give M44 one last shot resulted in me deciding to sell it, so I'm quite happy to have a good first impression despite wishing that GMT had gone with a different unit paradigm than the earlier titles of multiple pieces per unit.

I've played the first two stock scenarios (P500 orders got four bonus scenarios), both featuring the Syracusans against the Carthaginians prior to the Punic Wars with Rome. The first game, essentially a learning scenario with no elephants or terrain, is a walkover for the Syracusans, which is a shame. A learning scenario should be a bit more balanced, although it is useful if you are familiar with the game and playing a newbie (hint: let the newbie win by giving them the Syracusans).

The second scenario, Crimossos River, is a bit tough for the Carthaginians, as they have half of their army on the other side of a river that they must ford, and that takes time and cards. This game was a thriller (at least as much as you can have playing solitaire). The Syracusans have a lot of heavy foot, and they were doing much damage to the Carthaginians. When they did lose battles, the units managed to hang on by their fingernails. At one point, the Carthaginian medium foot had gotten across the river and were causing a lot of damage to the Syracusan heavy foot, and the game was on the line with Carthage only needing one more VP to win. Seeing that there was little to lose, Syracuse attacked from both flanks: on the left with a heavily damaged cavalry unit, on the right with two ranged attacks. Both managed to destroy the units they were fighting, giving Syracuse the two VP it needed for the victory. I love that sort of come-from-behind win (even if I lose as a result), and I was quite happy to see it happen in this game. Of course, this was a single playing, but it does bode well for whether I'll like the game on a regular basis as opposed to me considering selling it.

The one thing I still hate is that it seems to take almost as much time to set up as it does to play, and I've separated out the various units into baggies. A big help would be a list of needed units with each scenario, not just the diagram on the map which is nice, but I always forget something. Of course, playing an actual opponent would help out here, as you'd have two people setting up, but it's still a bit onerous. This is a problem in general with all of these games, and the blocks do make it a bit easier to handle the individual pieces.

So, there you have it. This looks like a great light wargame with a strong euro feel, aided by the best rules I've seen (both in terms of organization and special rules) in this series. If you don't mind blocks instead of plastics, and you wish that BC or M44 was a better game, this may be the ticket for you.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Broads and Ruts

Roads and Boats is one of those games that has achieved legendary status, pulling down well over $300 on eBay for a used copy. The funny thing is that I suspect that few of the people who want to get it have ever actually played it, putting it in the same category as wargamers who want a copy of Pacific War or Wacht am Rhein.

With many of our group off at the Gamestorm special session, Mike, Eric and I sat down to finally give this title a try (at least for me). I will admit, this is a game that intrigued me, but the price tag even when it was in production and available at retail lost me completely.

I won't go into the details of how the game works, other than to say that it falls quite firmly into the category of "create this to grow that to take here to build this to do this other thing that gets you points". This kind of game is pretty much a Maybe Something Good, Maybe Something Bad experience. What is different is that the game is deep. There are a lot of choices once you get going, and the number of "Doh!" moments, at least in our first game, were something to behold.

We played the symmetrical map with the three rivers coming out of a central group of mountains. This map is supposedly easy on beginners, it certainly was fair as everyone had exactly the same amount of stuff to work with. We all started out with the standard Woodcutter/Sawmill/Breed Donkeys opening, and we all went for the Clay/Stone Factory pairing. Then it all went vaguely pear shaped.

I had a lot of trouble with remembering exactly what the heck I was supposed to be working with to build various things. For example, I built a paper mill in the central mountains, thinking that this was somehow a good idea, mainly in order to get the ability to build carts or rafts on the tech tree. You don't need the tech tree to build either carts or rafts, of course, so I found myself wondering just what I would buy on the tech tree. The wrong thing, as it turned out, as I got Big Mines which let Mike get a bunch of free gold off of me. Then, of course, I build a raft factory, when I should have done the rowboats and built a rowboat factory. Sometimes, I am dumb as a post, and this game brought that feeling out in spades.

It went on like that. Realizing I had wood instead of lumber, or that the oil derricks did indeed need research when I had seconds ago researched new shafts. I also managed to figure out about 3/4s of the way into the game that I could keep Mike from stealing my stuff if I build a freakin' wall. Ugh.

About three hours in, I realized that we were all hopelessly slogging around the board doing one dumb thing after another, although I do admit that I had a pretty good truck factory going on the far bank of the Sea of Dug where no one could reach me. Getting fuel back over to make coins out of gold, that was the tricky part, especially as I didn't have a good place to do this. Of course, getting the oil derrick helped, but by then I couldn't get gold out of my big mine because the first five pieces out were iron.

You get the picture. It wasn't pretty.

By the end of the game, at least while we were all still making more than a token effort (the last few turns were for formality alone), it was taking quite a while to think out what had to go where, what had been moved, what hadn't, what we really should have done, and it was a mess. I understand there are some suggestions for tracking these things, and I wish I'd used them more often. Still, figuring out your optimal move led to barely tolerable downtime stretches for all involved.

This game feels a lot like the computer game Civilization (the earlier versions, I hated III). I can spend an entire day starting from scratch with that game, and then it gets to a point where it feels like work. I almost never finish any of the games I start, which is mildly frustrating as I always loved to get the spaceship to Alpha Centauri. Same with this game. The early part is a blast, with managable goals and interesting puzzles and I really like it. The late game was just too much.

This is all stated with the caveat that this was indeed, in every sense of the word, a learning game. Learning the rules (we screwed up several), how the various elements interact (Doh! Doh again!), and what you have to do to keep from giving away the bank. I'd be very interested in playing with two, or even solitaire, as I think this game is a great puzzle (although I'm not really into $300 puzzles, to be honest). I don't know that I'd play with three again, certainly not with four, unless everyone could play briskly once things got hairy. The problem, of course, is that with such a long game, and so many interesting long games that my group likes, and the rarity of this particular title, I don't see it coming out enough to warrant the effort. Perhaps at a Sunriver retreat if Dave and I are doing two-player games for an evening.

Regardless, thanks to Mike for hosting. I'll miss the next regular Tuesday (it's a bit too far away for my road rage to handle), but the following week I host and then off to Mike's for the annual Super Bowl party. Go Seahawks!

Damn, now I've jinxed them. It don't take much.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

MLK Wargaming

Were MLK alive today, he'd have spent his birthday playing wargames.

OK, maybe not, but since Chuck had the day off, we decided to celebrate with a couple of shorter wargames. On the table were two sessions of Twilight Struggle and one half-session of Bonaparte at Marengo.

I was extremely high on TS after my first ftf playing with Chuck. However, we did get one essential rule wrong, and we wanted to see how it would go with the correct rules. In our first game, I took the USSR again, starting with more focus on the battleground countries in Europe. I had a great start on the Space Race (including the Nazi Scientist), and despite an initial hand with mostly US cards, I got lucky on a couple of rolls at the end of turn 3 with the Arabs invading Israel, and won on points.

There has been quite a bit of concern on CSW that the USSR has a marked advantage in this game, and Chuck had played a few solo sessions that made him think that this was indeed the case, so we tried one more game. This time, I took the US, and was in decent shape going into turn 4, with the USSR up by only 4 points. Then I got...The Hand.

Here is where TS falls down. If you get the wrong hand at the wrong time, it doesn't matter what has happened before, you are going to be in a lot of trouble. This was one of those hands. First off, I had four, count 'em, four scoring cards (Africa, CenAm, SouAm, and Mideast). My other four cards were two 1's, two 2, and a 3, plus the China card. I had no advantage in any of the areas, and so I got SouAm out for my headline. Making things considerably worse was Chuck's headline play of Red Scare, which reduced the OPs of each of my cards by one, leaving me with at most eight OPs for the entire turn (you must play all scoring cards, so at best I play China for 3, then 2+1+1+1). The Defcon was at 2, so I couldn't even coup in battleground states. Chuck scored 15 points in that single turn.

While I will admit that this is an unusual distribution of cards, it did demonstrate that the scoring card mechanism is broken in this game. I suspect that the designers thought that knowing you have a scoring card is an advantage, so having to play them and lose any other activity is compensated. However, once you have more than one it is almost impossible to do anything to improve your position if you are behind in any areas. Even though Chuck didn't score anything in Africa or SouAm, I still had to play both of those cards, losing OPs or events in the process.

Chuck believes that this problem is particularly bad for the US, who has a shortage of good events early in the game and is already at a disadvantage. I haven't played as much as him, nor analyzed the deck as thoroughly as he has, but I tend to agree. In two games, I have gone from thinking this was the best CDG yet to thinking that this is up there with 30YW, perhaps the most poorly developed game that GMT ever put out.

To be fair, I have run into a similar problem in Hannibal, where I lost a game largely because I drew a hand without a single 3 card with one 3 general in Africa, sadly out of position. My opponent figured this out quickly, sent Africanus to Carthage, and won without me being able to do a single thing. However, I have played 30+ games of Hannibal, and this was the only one that felt like the game turned on such a freakish draw.

At any rate, I will hope that the designers recognize that the scoring card mechanism is broken and needs tweaking. I think the answer may be some sort of "mulligan" where if you draw a certain number of scoring cards you randomly discard down to two (or some number), draw new cards to replace them, and shuffle the cards back into the draw pile. I don't think just bidding will help this problem.

We then went and had lunch, and returned to try out BaMarenge, the dance of luuuuuuuv. BaM.

BaM is a "luckless" block game with some big differences. Rather than just having blocks in a given location, they are assigned to either reserves in that locale, or block approaches, each of which has different characteristics with regard to defense against different types of units. I actually like this "approach", although to be honest the map is a bit hard to parse. The roads and many of the terrain features (which dictate the qualities of approaches, but otherwise don't play a role in the game) show up much better than the approaches, and it requires careful examination of the board to see what the true situation is.

The blocks are actually sticks with the type and strength of the unit on one side of the stick. Since units may be assigned to an approach that faces you, all of your units are placed face down, so no one can see them. Also, the sticks can be accidentally rotated very easily, making it far too easy to spin your units and expose them unintentionally.

The rules are, in essence, very simple, but the movement rules get very fussy. Like most block games, you activate "groups" to move as a unit. However, movement along roads is complex. To start with, each unit moves three spaces along the road, and each unit counts as a single group. However, the movement phase is broken up into three subphases, with only one unit allowed to cross an approach along a road per subphase. That means you have to remember which unit moved when in the turn. To make things worse, if you move along a primary road exclusively, it doesn't count towards the three units/groups you can move/assault with in a turn.

Sound complicated? Try getting this information from the rules. I've owned various synthesizers over the years, and the ones coming out of Japan are typically written in "Japanenglish", which is to say that they try to explain complex technical features with faulty English. These rules are pretty close. They are poorly organized, and overexplain some very basic ideas. An entire paragraph to explain how to say that you are going to use artillery to defend - just the declaration, mind you - is a bit much.

This feels a bit like whining, as most wargames fall into this category. In fact, I read the rules for a Richard Berg game (Carthage, his most recent Ancient World game), and was startled by how much the rules assume that you've been playing wargames for a long time. This game went exactly the opposite way.

The Austrians are supposed to either knock the French's morale down far enough while keeping their own up, or else manage to get to the other side of the board and take some particular spaces. Since you can only activate three groups/units per turn (other than primary road only movement), it can take a while for the Austrian offensive to get started. The French have the problem of a) being randomly assigned to specific spaces on the board, and also not being able to even activate them until someone is knocking on the door or things are well under way. This is the only luck in the game, but it can be a doozy... the key to an Austrian victory is based on where the strength 3 French infantry is and whether the Austrians can guess where they are.

In our game, after a couple of abortive starts, Chuck got his single artillery into position (which essentially forces the French to retreat from that locale or take unrequited losses), and got his cavalry moving along the primary roads, which are essentially on the flanks of the board. I had a couple of French units holding the line a bit too long, but since you can't just retreat (the French will get pushed off of the board if they do that), it is important to make at least a few token stands early. When Chuck had to leave, we were about half way through the game, and with Chuck halfway up the map. The French were still a ways away from demoralization (you lose one point for every combat loss you take, and the French start with 17), and the game might have gone either way.

I think that my initial evaluation of the game as "eh" was strongly influenced by the poorly organized and written rules, the component problems, and the confusion we had in the first hour of play. I also think that the short play length, minimal luck, and other factors make the game feel almost like a puzzle instead of a game. I'm concerned that, random initial placement aside, that there is an optimal Austrian strategy. All of that included, I do want to try the game again. A player aid sheet to help clear up the fussiness of movement (combat is very straightforward, other than the cavalry pursuit rules) would help a lot.

Because of an HOA meeting (God, I love HOAs) this week, I did not attend the regular Tuesday session at Matt's. However, we are having a Third Saturday of the Month session, so I'll have another report then.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

New Look

Trying out a few new looks over the next few weeks, as Blogger has many more themes to choose from now than when I first created the blog. I'm shooting primarily for readability over style, and the Dark Dots theme looked just a bit too retro for my tastes.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

He's Got The Whole World In His Box...

Since we've been playing "classics" at our recent Tuesday sessions (what that exactly meant seems to depend heavily upon who you are talking to), I didn't want to drag my new copy of World of Warcraft to the regular session. However, with this many bits, I really wanted to at least set it up and play through a few turns to get a sense of how it works for when our group does try to tackle it. The rules are about as complete and full of examples as I could hope for, although they were long. Really long (40 pages). While admittedly this is 40 pages wil lots of illustrations, examples, large type, and whitespace, it is a lot of pages. Fortunately, they seemed to convey the game pretty well, I had very few questions as I played the game.

WoW is your typical board-based RPG, where you play one or more characters (which are associated with one of two teams, Horde and The Good Guys). The basic gameplay is organized around "quests" that are determined through random card draws for each side. As quests are drawn, they place a particular critter in a particular space. If you beat said critter(s) in combat, you get gold, experience, and maybe goodies. Quest cards also often place "independent" critters in other spaces on the board. The cards are separated into four decks per side, each deck with progressively more difficult quests. When your side has enough experience and goodies, you can take on the "overlord" character, and if you beat him you win. If you don't, or time runs out, there's a big melee between the two teams and whoever survives wins.

Play is based on "actions" similar to many euros. Every turn, one team can take actions (divided up between characters, each of which gets two per turn) that allow you to develop your character, replenish your health, go to the "store", move, and fight. One character on a team might take one action, followed by another character using two, then back to the first character again. This, to my mind, is where the game will shine in that you plan out your team's turn to best accomplish character growth to be ready to take on one of the three overlords at game end.

There's been some complaint about the combat system, which can be a bit fussy. Characters have various capabilities built in, but can improve them through their own Power and Talent deck that allow quite a bit of customization, and this gives a lot of replay value. Various powers, talents, and items (as well as inherent abilities) lend various elements to combat. This seems a bit convoluted, but actually once you've got the drill down, you can move through a combat fairly quickly. Here's how it goes:

1) Figure out what dice you use, based on your abilities. Blue dice are ranged and can knock out an opponent before they can even take a swipe at you. Red dice inflict damage up close, and green dice protect from damage, but don't cause damage on their own. Some powers add dice only if "energy" is spent, which is based on the character you play. Note that as you get better armor, weapons, etc, the number of dice you get can increase or the mix change.

2) Next, your character may have the chance to reroll dice, again sometimes if energy is expended. Sometimes, you may also get to add dice if certain die rolls meet a criteria, such as begin at or above a certain value. Different characters will have a different number of dice you can reroll, and some critters will cause damage based on particularly poor rolls.

3) Once you've got your dice rolled and rerolled, you compare the dice to the "Threat" value of the critter in question. If you meet or exceed this value on a die, you put a hit in the "Damage" or "Defense" box if the die is blue or red, and armor tokens in the Defense box if you hit with the green dice. You also add hit markers to the "Attrition" box if your character has that ability.

4) If there are enough hits in the Damage box to meet or exceed the Health value of the critter, one is removed from the battle. If you've killed all of the critters in the group (based on whether the monster is independent or quest, and the same breed), you've won. If not, leave the hits that haven't killed critters in the Damage box and continue.

5) compare the Attack value of the critter, multiplied by the number of critters, to the number of armor and damage tokens in the Defense box. If the Attack value is higher, you have to assign hits to the characters equal to the difference. If you run out of Health yourself, you are defeated and lose the rest of your turn and resurrect in specific areas.

6) If you are still alive, you remove all armor markers from the defense box, then move all hits from the Defense and Attrition boxes to Damage and again compare them to the critter's health as in step four. If characters and critters are still around, you do it all again, leaving the unassigned hit markers in the Damage box.

Like I say, it sounds complex, but there are a lot of ways to make things go quickly. For example, if you know that you need four hits to kill off two critters, you can tell pretty quickly if you've got four hits on blue dice. The problem is that because you are constantly improving your abilities by upgrading items or abilities, the number of dice you'll have in a given combat is constantly changing. Also, you have to remember to pay for any "instant" abilities with energy, and it was pretty easy for me to forget this in my session the first couple of times. Still, it wasn't too bad. Player vs player is similar. Different colored critters have different values (green quest monsters are wimps, red are much tougher, blue independents can range in effectiveness. It's important for players to know what your character is capable of taking on, one character failed to defeat what appeared to be a pretty wimpy Scarlet Fighter twice, costing them four or five turns while other characters were gaining levels left and right.

That's essentially the game: improve your character, complete quests by fighting critters, and finally having enough cojones to take on the Big Bad Dude. I could see downtime being a problem with six players, as if you aren't fighting and everyone else is, it could take five or ten minutes until your turn comes back around. With only 30 actions per character in a given game, it seems like making every one count is critical. Fortunately, it is not too tough to get around the board, as there are special "transporter" spaces that make it easy to jet across the board from time to time.

There are also events that come up every so often, some of which give out goodies or replenish health, gold, or energy, and some that allow more events to tag along. In fact, I suppose it is possible to get four or five events if the right ones come up. These seem to be there just to make the game more unpredictable, which may be too much of a good thing since so much depends upon how the quests come up.

My solo session was played with four of the six recommended "first game" characters, and I did the recommended "Training" action for each of them first to add a few powers. After that, three of the four characters went through the standard "Train, move, fight, recharge, move, fight, recharge" cycle. The fourth kept losing, and was clearly going to be challenged as the game went on. The three successful characters got through roughly seven quests in the first eight turns, which I think would be pretty typical. I didn't do any player vs player combat, nor did I look too closely at the Overlord portion of the game.

While I own Warcraft: the Boardgame and the first edition of Runebound (bastards at FFG, if there was ever a game that should have had an upgrade kit, this was it), I really haven't had much chance to play any of these games. The one short solo of Runebound felt particularly constrained in what the characters could do, especially with so few movement options (the Flight Paths of WoW are a great addition to a board that is built to create constrictions), and by then the second ed came out and I refused to buy the game again. W:tB looks like fun, especially with the expansion, but this game really requires actual players to do more than push pieces around, and I really don't have a good feel for how any of these games will work.

WoW, on the other hand, feels like you have a lot of control over how you want your character to improve. Every time you increase in level, you have three choices as to which Talent to add, not to mention the various powers and items. Since each character has a set number of spells, powers, armor, weapons, etc (that use a very clever and transparent system that even limits how much stuff a character can even have with him), you constantly have to decide how you want to configure the character for maximum effect. However, you can only equip new stuff at the end of your turn, so just because you get the Sword of Instant Vasectomy doesn't mean you can or even want to use it right away, much less later on.

OK, now for a few nits. The box is big, roughly the size of two large Kosmos square boxes set side by side, and you need it. However, rather than a plastic inset to help sort the goodies, all there is is a useless piece of cardboard that separates out the bazillion cards but is useless after you've taken them out of the shrink, mine went into recycle immediately. I ended up using a lot of little plastic baggies, more than I use for some wargames. Setting up and taking down this game is not a trivial task.

As for the components, the critters are in the same red/blue/green colors as you see in Doom: the Boardgame, which is to say the colors are saturated and a bit on the radioactive side (although nowhere as bad as, say, Nexus Ops). You'll want to separate out the various critters, as they can look a bit samey samey if you shove them all in a big quart ziplock. I did separate out the various character cards, starting energy/gold/health and minis, which does improve setup time. The character minis are a bit hard to tell apart, as all are grey plastic, although I didn't have too much trouble on the board as there were only four of them. I'd have liked for Horde characters to be a different color than the Good Guy minis. There is even one Horde mini that only bears a passing resemblance to the illustration on the character card. Even the critters don't really have a good map of what figure matches what drawing. However, these are truly nits. I haven't played the computer game, so I don't know whether the mix is a good representation of the various characters in the game, but frankly I think these things are fairly generic as so many fantasy games and books use the exact same types and have become interchangable. However, just having the ability to choose from nine different characters, most of which can be played on either side and have a lot of improvement options is beyond anything I've seen outside of pencil and paper RPGs.

As for play, the game struck me as being an incremental improvement over other RPG boardgames. Even with the various options for improvement and the board's flight paths, the game still comes down to completing a series of quests that for all intensive purposes vary little in any parameter other than difficulty and location. With 30 actions, however, this would result in roughly seven or eight quests attempted per character (assuming one quest per four actions). Even random events and a choice of three different Overlords probably won't do much to change this essential truth. However, I do think that if any game was going to break out of the standard fantasy RPG mold, it would be WoW.

I hear that it is best to play with four or six players, and the game scales rather directly for those numbers. With others, you have some players that will be much more active than others. That might be good for learning situations, but not so cool when everyone is up on the rules. Two players would work well too, and could use either four or six characters, and I could see the game getting play this way (although probably not for me unless I had the right opponent who didn't like wargames).

I'm looking forward to a "real" playing of this title, probably not until April and our group's Sunriver retreat (unless Chris holds a Beach Bash between now and then). I'm certainly more interested in giving this a shot than the other fantasy titles I've got.

Note: Seeing as FFG's new Descent game is essentially a second edition of Doom, I have no intention of buying it. I do hear it's better in several ways, but I get very tired of FFG's policy of expecting me to pay for the same game over and over when what they've really done is fix some basic problems. With wargames, the rules and cards (and occasionally even counters or the map) are given errata, preserving the value of your investment, Avalanche excepted. With euros, the rules are simple enough and the games playtested well enough to avoid more than an occasional rule change. With the heavier American board games, we get to buy the game again. Even White Wolf did this regularly with their Vampire/Werewolf/Etc LARPs, releasing second edition rules and adventures, sometimes as soon as six or eight months after the initial release. I got fooled twice, then stopped buying their material. I certainly won't do it with FFG or any other company that makes this a regular strategy. I am not talking about euros that are republished in the US, that is an entirely different situation and one that I applaud.

Enough ranting. Next up, a second playing of Twilight Struggle, this time with the correct rules...

South Tuesday Session, 1/10/06

Mike hosted a whopping nine gamers, including a few we don't see so often and New Guy Carey. Turnout has been pretty good lately, but I guess that in Oregon, there isn't that much to do when it rains, and it has been raining lately.

While Chris, Eric, Mike, Tim, and Carey played Bus (a game I'd love to like, but the board gives me fits), Chuck, Rita, KC and I played Tal der Koenig, followed by David and Goliath, and ending with (of all things) Havoc.

Tal der Koenig is a game of building pyramids. The game has been around for a while, and is the only game I've seen other than Ubi (a geography game that was the followup to the original Trivial Pursuit) that comes in a triangular box. KC says that the game is very highly sought on eBay, with prices well over $100. The idea is to move overseers and workers around a board to build pyramids from blocks you blind-bid for earlier in the turn. If you have a majority of overseers at another person's site, you can use your workers to steal blocks from that site, and if you also have more workers, you can even steal the site itself. The bigger and more aesthecally pleasing your pyramids are, the more points you get.

We all tried to do a certain amount of screwage in the game, although not so much between KC and Rita. While I got off to a fast start with a passable small pyramid, KC's first two pyramids were each worth twice as much as mine. With Chuck and I spending cycles going back and forth, Rita and KC were doing so well (and KC's big pyramid was so far away from me that I couldn't get there to do any stealing, and even then I didn't need the blocks) that it became quite clear quickly that the game would end with an easy win for KC with nothing any of the rest of us could do. I find games like that to be a bit on the tedious side, and while I did like the basic ideas inherent in the game, this wouldn't be a game I'd pay a premium for.

Next up was David and Goliath, the trick taking game where the lowest card played (ties go to the later card played) collects the largest card played, and the largest card played takes the remaining tricks. You display the cards you take in front of you, and at the end of the hand you get the face value of cards you've collected if you only got one or two of that suit, otherwise they are worth a single point each. Obviously, the trick (no pun intended) is to get one or two high cards in each suit, although it's not necessarily a bad idea to collect as many cards as you can in a suit if that works better for you.

In the first hand, Rita got the most points with only two cards in three or four different suits, with me close behind. I had figured out what I needed to do by the second hand, and cleaned up with 47 points, only two more than I'd gotten with Rita doing so well. Part of the strategy is to try to channel cards to players who will be the most damaged by them - in some cases you can actually force someone to lose as many as 60 points with one trick! My own strategy is to try to get cards from a short suit out of my hand as quickly as possible so that I don't have to follow suit when they are led. The game can get a bit slow if players try to count cards (easy when they are displayed, and a good reason why my mother the Bridge player was a monster at this game the first time I taught it to her). If you want to play competitively, however, it may become critical at the end of the hand, but I did try not to get into that mode of thinking until the last few tricks. This one's a winner, recently republished, and I think it could become a popular closer, especially as the game scales well from two to six players.

Finally, we played Havoc while the other table pulled out Take 6. I remembered now what drives me crazy about this game (as well as Taj Mahal) - the fact that you can burn a bunch of cards for absolutely nothing. Funny, that happens in Tag der Koenig too! I managed to snag exactly two points in the first five battles, and had spent a lot of cards doing it. I did save up five nines throughout the game, and used them to get the penultimate battle points, but that was only good enough for me to squeak by KC for third. I do like this game, but I obviously haven't quite figured out how to play well - you have to go strong if you want points and not finesse your way to victory (my strategy that failed miserably). This was my first playing with a production set and I do want to keep playing to get a better sense of what it takes to win the game.

Thanks for hosting, Mike. I'll have to miss the next Tuesday session (HOA meeting, yay), but I will have a couple of other posts on sessions in the next week or so.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Twilight Struggle Update

I checked out the 'Geek's errata after posting last night, and learned that Chuck and I had played a very basic rule incorrectly: In order to dominate a region, you must both control more countries than your opponent and control more battleground countries than your opponent. We had only played with the former condition, not the latter (although we did require both a battleground and non-battleground country controlled in the region).

This would have had a much larger effect on play, not to mention scoring. Huge, in fact. It makes putting influence in France necessary for the US, for example, when in our game Chuck didn't even try until later in the game because he was concerned about DeGaulle. As for scoring, I got 6 points more in the final scoring than I should have, and another 4 when I played the Europe scoring card in the last turn. As such, that's only a 7 point margin, and I'm pretty sure I had the lion's share of dominations in Asia over the course of the game.

The problem was that the reference card had the wrong criteria, although the rulebook is correct. We did play with the correct amount of US influence in Australia.

I suspect that this one change makes the Soviets less likely to win outright, as they will have difficulty getting Domination in Europe without fighting over Italy, and the whole Indo-Pakistani thing (which we avoided by never placing influence in those countries until the late game) becomes more important.

We still had a great time playing, this is only to note that you should check the rulebook rather than the play aid card. There is definitely room on the standard 8.5x11 cardstock aids for this info, I'm sure someone will put out a better copy on the 'Geek soon. I do not think that this has a big effect on the enjoyment factor, but it does make Defcon much more important (in limiting coups, especially in battleground states).

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Twilight Struggle - The First FTF Game

In my last post, I outlined some of my concerns and first impressions of the new GMT CDG, Twilight Struggle. I had a few concerns that I enumerated, but wanted to wait for a game to really review this title.

In a word, this game rocks.

OK, that was three. Sue me.

Chuck got to my place around 6pm, but since everyone needed to eat a little food before tottering on the brink of nuclear annihilation, we didn't get started until closer to 6:15pm. Chuck gave me the Soviets, saying that he felt they had a little edge in the early game. By 9:30pm, we had finished an entire 10-turn game, which surprised both of us (Chuck thought it would be more like 5 hours based on his earlier play with Dave). From a time perspective, the game was exactly right - right around 3 hours, perfect for a weeknight game.

The components held up well. I'm still concerned about the cards, but they didn't feel as flimsy as I was worried about. We only had four reshuffles, which is pretty good considering two are mandated. At game end, we had worked through the very last card in the deck, so every Late War card had a shot at getting played. The counter mix might have added some more of the 3/4 value influence chits and taken away some of the 1/2 chits, as we never came close to getting all of the smallest counters on the board. Perhaps GMT will add some to the next C3i magazine, although to be honest this wasn't a huge issue. The map was fine, we didn't run into any problems that we noticed with the connection lines, which in some places are a little hard to parse. What was a problem was trying to scan the board to see at a glance who was dominating in a given region. While I think an offboard track would be the best idea (and a good use of those extra 1/2 chits), you can also get by with putting an appropriate influence chit in the region to keep track of how many you control (although this exacerbates the counter mix problem). I will put together a simple track and put it up on the 'Geek in the near future, unless someone else does this before me.

As far as rules/card text went, I was quite impressed. This is usually where CDGs fall down, as adding errata to the cards is pretty much not going to happen with my set, even with card holders. However, we didn't run into any serious problems, although we did have two questions. As for the rules, I believe we looked in the rulebook twice. Wow. Here are the questions we had:

1) If a card says "attack," does this count as a coup? We said "no," but a definitive answer would be good.

2) If you play a card for ops which has an event that gives your opponent OPs, do they get to use them? This only came up once for us (the CIA card, although there are others), so it was a question of one extra OP for Chuck, and the game wasn't that close. We answered this "no" during the game (at Chuck's insistence, I was willing to give him the OP), but I think it should be "yes".

And that, my friends, was that. Think of the last time you played a wargame for the first time with a grand total of four questions. Astonishing.

And to really mess with your head, the game was fun. Fun, fun, fun. Even up to the final scoring, it seemed like it would be pretty close, although I went from around 4 points at the start of the final turn to 17 after the final scoring, so knowing how many points can be scored in the Americas and Africa (where I cleaned up, we essentially washed in the Mideast, Europe, and Asia). It certainly felt closer to me.

As for the flow, it was awesome. Quick play, ample opportunity for screwage, and even better was having to figure out how to play your opponent's cards in the least damaging (to you) way. I was concerned about the potential for bad draws at critical times (like turn 3 and 7, just before the extra cards get added in). In fact, this happened to me on turn 3, when I drew one card I could play as an event for me, the rest were all US only, meaning that Chuck got the Marshall Plan, NATO, and a bunch of other goodies essentially for free. A few turns later, I had none of Chuck's card, and got to keep one of my own cards! Sweet!

The Space Race was the only element that didn't feel like it really fit in, even though Chuck scored an extra 8 points out of it and on the one turn he got to react to my headline (when I played S American scoring), he was able to wipe out any points for me while keeping his own - an 8 point swing! However, having the chance to dump off a junk card is really critical, as that allows you to have two cards in hand that you won't have to play for your opponent's benefit.

On the other hand, the military track forced us to attempt coups to get our numbers up high enough to avoid VP losses. I think Chuck lost one VP all game, although I don't think that this game is quite as bad as Paths of Glory where a single VP loss because of a brain fart can kill you at game end. It's one more thing to think about, although in a game where we flirted with MAD at Defcon 2 almost the entire game, it does tend to protect you, and if there are no non-battleground candidates outside of Eur/Mid/Asia (no coups if you're at Def2), you can cause or receive screwage. This was an elegant mechanism that had enough interactions to make it important, but without much cost to complexity.

Sure, Cooley's Law applies, and I did win handily as the Soviets. Chuck thinks that there may be a balance problem, although it will take a few more playings (and there will be more playings, I'm already predicting that this will be the most-played release from GMT this year) to know for sure. And even if there is, you simply bid VP for side. How easy can that be?

For a freshman design from Ananda Gupta, this one is an excellent start. While I think that it may be a pretty loose simulation, it is a fantastic game for anyone looking for a longer 2-player historical game that doesn't require remembering 20 pages of rules and chrome. This is a home run for GMT, and I think it has the potential to actually grow the hobby, not something you hear much in an age where publishers almost never put out a wargame at this complexity level.

I'll even go so far to say that this is my favorite CDG since Hannibal, and perhaps, just perhaps, it's the best yet.

I'll stop gushing now. Pick this one up and give it a shot, you'll be glad you did.

Twilight Struggle - OOTB and First Play

I'm a big fan of CDG wargames in all stripes, from the multiplayer games like Successors and Sword of Rome to the political control games like Hannibal to the military ops games like Barbarossa to Berlin. As such, I was very excited that a CDG focused on the Cold War - events that took place in my lifetime! Yay! What has been a surprise is that Twilight Struggle is almost exclusively about political control. In fact, other than a Space Race track, that's really all there is. Think Hannibal with no armies or SP, but with varying amounts of control markers needed to control various spaces. Also, think of essentially random scoring of various regions of the board instead of on a turn by turn basis. That's TS.

There are other differences - it is very difficult to avoid events getting played. Like Hannibal, the cards are all in one big deck, with some cards playable by the Sovs, some by the US, and some by either. Unlike Hannibal, the cards come into play in stages, although in this game the interval is set (Mid-War cards come into play on turn 4, regardless of player actions). What is new in this game is that when you play a card that "belongs" to your opponent for Operations (for example, the US playing a card with a red star), you must execute the event as well. The only exception is if you use the card for the Space Race, and that's effectively limited to one card per turn.

In a sense, this is a bit of an advantage. For example, if you hold a "scoring card" (these must be played during a turn, much like the Declaration of Independence in WtP), you cannot hold it in your hand into the next turn. You cannot use it for the Space Race. You must play it. However, if you also have a card that will benefit the Soviets in Eastern Europe, you can sequence the card play so that you first score Europe, then help out the Soviets later on. It is also possible to hold a card long enough to prevent the event ever happening if there is another card that prohibits it. Similarly, if you were the US and drew both Warsaw Pact and NATO (the former is a prerequisite for the latter), you can control the sequencing to allow the play.

However, it can also go against you. If you as the US draw nothing but Sov cards in turn 1, you know that there is enough time to get at least all of the Early War cards out before turn 4, but if you get the bad draw instead on turn 3, you will have a deck going forward that will have the remaining US cards that weren't drawn on turn 3, but mixed in with a fairly large Mid-War deck that dilutes the chances of an equivalent swing back in a soon-to-happen turn. I believe that this is why discards aren't mixed back into the deck when a new deck is added, to minimize this damage. Still, if you get the wrong cards at a critical moment, you could be in real trouble. While I can't say for sure yet, this setup makes it less valuable to play your own events as there is every chance that next time your opponent will be forced to do so for you. This is in direct opposition to the usual state of affairs in a CDG, as usually you have to decide whether or not to play the event or the OPs, whereas now you will always play OPs unless the event is critical (getting you into a region where you don't have much presence, for example).

As for components, this is something of a mixed bag. The map is of the new "heavy" stock that I'm coming to really like. Paper maps are great, but they aren't intended to be folded and refolded over time. With a single-sided map, you can at least fix tears by taping the back, but if the map is double-sided there isn't really any good solution. With anything I purchased before 1997, I used to laminate the maps to prevent too much wear and tear, but it also makes them effectively untransportable, and if something went wrong with the lamination, you got to buy a new map (this happened to several XTR game maps, and the printing house refused to take responsibility for the damage). Which is just a long way of saying that having a map that will fold repeatedly without significant damage is a good thing.

The rules are very short, and printed on good-quality paper. The actual rules only take 8 pages, the rest is listings of what the events represent (a welcome addition) and a full-game example of play! There are two player aid cards that outline all of the rules you need to know, plus what cards are in which decks. The actual events aren't listed, but you do have a decent sense of the relative strength and ownership of every card. These cards are also printed on good-quality cardstock that will put up with a decent amount of abuse.

What does worry me is the poor quality of the cardstock used for the cards. I'm really wishing that I had an extra 104 card sleeves laying around to put these in before I ever play it, but alas, the closest I can get with any of my extras laying around is about 75. I've already had a bit of near-damage to one card just in shuffling, which strikes me as disappointing. If you've seen Hasbro/AH's reprint of History of the World and the card quality, these are pretty close to that bad.

There are also two smallish dice that will be perfectly serviceable. They are in different colors for each side, although the only time both dice are rolled is when you try to remove your opponent's influence markers.

That's it for the OOTB assessment, now for reports on the first two playings, one solitaire to make sure I had a good grip on the rules as Chuck has already played a game.

The solitaire outing, which is a bit tricky because it's very handy to know what your opponent holds in hand, not to mention that some cards actually require players to reveal them, was through turn three. I forgot several things immediately: having to do coups and events in order to qualify for Military Operations, which isn't that hard. One good coup is usually enough to get you set up, even less if there's a lot of brinksmanship going on around the Defcon Level. I completely forgot about the technique where you roll to remove your opponent's influence as well, although it seems that in most cases it would be better to place your own if you can rather than try to knock down your opponents unless you don't have any influence in the immediate area. Otherwise, things seemed to go well. Some things I noted:

o It is important to preserve at least some presence in an area. In my solo game, the US lost all of it's influence in the MidEast, and they had no influence any closer than Thailand and Italy. In the absence of an event that allows you to place influence in specific places, you can only generate influence through coups, which are a bit expensive and first has to remove your opponent's influence first. In a country that has stability 2 and 2 of your opponent's influence, for example, a 3 OPs card would require a dr of 5 to remove all of the opponent's influence, a 6 to get even one of yours on the board. Countries with a stability of 1 would be a bit easier, but that goes for your opponent getting it back as well. An effective pissing contest would result in no improvement at all for you.

o Be aware of what events affect specific countries. For example, Israel, the Koreas, Japan, Cuba, India/Pakistan, Romania, Vietnam, and pretty much everything in Europe can be be screwed for one side or the other with a single event card, often times played by the person it screws. And that's just in Early War!

o Remembering some of the effects of events can be a bit tricky, especially if there is no game marker to remind you. These events typically add or subtract one from all of your OPs numbers, but there is no counter or other reminder other than the card itself. I don't know about you, but if I put a card somewhere away from the cards in play, I typically forget it's there which is bad when it comes time to reshuffle (assuming it isn't discarded after play as an event). Considering that there are at least four counters in the mix that are useless (proof of purchase?!? What about actually owning the game?), I can't understand why a simple +1/-1 OPs counter for each side couldn't have been included. As a developer, I would be trying to figure out how best to use those four counters rather than putting in unusable counters...

o I also forgot that the Space Race gains you VP on occasion, as well as temporary advantages, depending upon where you are on the track. It's not just for dumping your opponent's events!

Otherwise, the game is very clean. One exception is how you control a country. Rather than two convoluted conditions you have to meet, it's just as easy to think of it as having as many points as the stability of the country plus your opponent's influence. Hit that number, and you have your very own banana republic.

That's about it for the solo game. What was strange was that the map was going quite well for the Soviets, but for much of the time the score was tilted towards the US. When regions get scored is really crucial, and I think this will drive activity in general. Early on, only Europe, the Mideast, and Asia score, but later on the map effectively doubles, and SE Asia gets it's own one-time scoring card. Knowing what you have to work for (and bluffing your opponent into thinking that you have a card for a different area) will be a central focus of the game. I'm also a bit concerned that you may get "stuck" into playing a card that ends up sending the planet into nuclear war, which (sadly) loses the game only for you. As though someone's coming out a winner in anything other than name in that situation.

This post has gone on long enough, so I'll incorporate the actual play session into a later posting.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Central Tuesday Session, 1/4/06

The first session of 2006! Yippee! Only two more months of screwing up the date on my checks!

Dave, Mike, and Laurent came out to my place for "Classics" night. I'd pulled a bunch of games out, and we ended up playing Samurai and "vanilla" Settlers, perhaps two of the Classic-est games in my library.

It had been a while since I'd played Samurai, and it's definitely a game that needs to come out more often. I was frankly surprised at how many of the rules I'd forgotten, mostly to do with victory conditions and starting the game, although Laurent and Mike needed refreshers as well.

The game was going along swimmingly, with me doing quite well with the paddies. At one point, Mike wanted to do the old "switch two figures then steal at least one of them" trick, but he was taking so long to make his second tile play that I mistook his hesitation for a lack of knowing what to do. I mentioned that he needed to complete the move or else I would benefit from his exchange of pieces rather than him, but he thought I meant that the completed move wasn't a good idea. As such, I'm afraid that Mike felt like he'd been screwed for most of the game, and as soon as I figured out the mistake, I apologized profusely.

Bogie aside, I felt like I was doing pretty well, then right near the endgame I remembered that you could win outright with two majorities. Sure enough, that's when Dave swapped a couple of figures, then snagged the last Buddha off the board and won the game with two majorities. I'd been doing so well, too, with five paddies and three of each of the other two types.

I can't complain about my tile draw, as I got most of my special tiles fairly early. What I didn't get until the end was the special samurai tile (ronin?), nor did I draw a single high hat tile until the last five draws. Nevertheless, did quite well, but then again so did Dave. Between us, we had 23 of the 39 tiles, so obviously it was a two horse race. I hope to bring the game out more in the future, as I do feel badly about the misunderstanding about Mike's play.

Next up was vanilla Settlers - no Buch, no ships, no cities or knights, just the basic game. What was fascinating about this game was that we were all fairly high up in points by the end of the game. Dave and I had a combined 5 ore draw on an 8 space, so of course that was a target for the robber for much of the game, and we hardly ever rolled 8's anyway. My 4 wood space with three draws did quite well, and combined with the 3:1 port that came in fairly handy much of the time. I managed to steal Laurent's Longest Road, and was only two converted cities away from the win when Dave managed to finally roll that 8 and get enough points to take the game.

Also interesting was the fact that every development card was drawn by the end of the game. At game end, Mike had gotten several VP cards, as had Dave and Laurent (I had gotten mostly Soldiers early, but Mike's eight (!) soldiers clinched Largest Army early on). Sadly, it seemed that the last three cards were VP cards, so my holding off on getting them in order to save up for my cities was the wrong move. Also astonishing was that I was in last place with 8 points, as both Laurent and Mike were a single point away from the win. Certainly the closest game of Settlers I've ever played, as there's usually one player that's getting creamed early on, being shut out expansion and starved for resources. Not this game. The game took more than 90 minutes, also unusual for the basic Settlers game.

I've gotten a travel edition of this title that I hope to take to Europe with our friends, it will be interesting to see if the very small parts will survive travel outside of a box, though.

Regardless, we all had a good time, and the Settlers game in particular was really fun to pull out again, even if Dave did point out that the game can be very frustrating (unlike many euro titles). If your rolls don't come up, you can really get screwed in the game, but even with Mike only getting four settlements up he was within a hair of winning. Good tension, and good fun.