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.

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