Friday, March 03, 2006

Test Drives

This was a good week for games, as not only did I get a huge windfall in the RDG auction, but it was also the week for Here I Stand, GMT's CDG on the Reformation, to get sent out to those who had preordered. At least a couple of my group has been anticipating this title for some time, despite it being a derivation of The Napoleonic Wars, which left most of us cold.

Also, one of the titles I picked up with my auction loot was the reprint of Britannia, the old Gibson/AH classic. I have the AH version, marred as so many games of that period by indecipherable and confusing rules, so I was hoping that FFG would cut the clutter and produce a beautiful game with clean rules.

First, HiS. This game is unlike any wargame I've played in that each of the six powers has it's own set of actions that it can take in the course of a turn, not to mention different ways for each power to earn VP. For example, England can explore the New World (though not as effectively as the Hapsburg/Spanish power), but can't really do much to affect the religious standing of even his own spaces. The Protestant player, however, can, and in fact much of his effort will be spent doing just that. The Ottoman player does neither, but (like most players) is interested in gaining VP spaces and committing piracy in the Med.

For solitaire play, this game is a real challenge in many ways. On the one hand, there are relatively few Combat/Response cards, so this mechanism actually works fairly well for a CDG. However, the real problem is the Negotiation phase, where players decide to declare war, sue for peace, get out of being excommunicated, and ally with each other. The rules actually encourage Diplomacy-like secret negotiations, where a player can announce a set of agreements with another power, only to find that when that power announces it's plans that the original player's agreements will not be honored. As you can imagine, this is pretty much impossible to do solitaire, and I'm hoping that some bright bulb out there will come up with a way to at least simulate the effects of negotiation to make this game more accessible for those who want to play solitaire.

That said, I did get through a turn of the 1517 scenario, where Luther kicks things off with a piece of paper, a hammer, and a nail and changes the Christian world. There are no negotiations the first turn, so it was easy to at least get through that much of the game. It is clear that the Protestant is all about converting spaces through card play, debates, and (perhaps most importantly) translating the Bible into the local language. When was the last time you played a game that featured not only those things, but burning failed Protestant debaters at the stake? Meanwhile, France, England, and the Hapsburgs (who are in this game primarily, but not exclusively, the Spanish) are lighting out for the VP to be found in the Western hemisphere. In my game, Magellan not only found the Pacific, he managed to circumnavigate the globe on the first turn for 4VP.

Meanwhile, the Papal player was trying to Counter-Reform Germany, and doing a pretty good job. Luther got excommunicated, a debater did the crispy-critter thing, and by the end of the turn there were only four or so Protestant spaces on the board. Further to the south, the Ottoman was marching on Buda (one half of the current twin cities of Buda-Pest) but getting bogged down in a foreign war in Persia. Those wacky Iranians, always making trouble, although in 1517 they had yet to enrich weapons-grade uranium.

Finally, the only real war going at the time aside from the Ottomans playing Whack-A-Mole with the Hungarians was the Hapsburgs seeing if they couldn't acquire a little beachfront property in Southern France. A clever card play by the French put Charles V's siege of Bordeaux in mortal danger, but an equally clever card play reinforced the army with some mercs and negated the retreat that would have ended up with Charles enjoying the French penitentiary system.

If it sounds like there is a lot going on here, you are correct. There are at least three subsystems at work here, with each one a critical element of a handful of powers. I can hardly wait to play this ftf, which we intend to do 3/12.

One note: the rules are a bit long for a CDG, weighing in at 44 pages. Yikes. However, I will note that the rules are in fairly good sized type, include numerous examples, and feature perhaps the cleanest outline of how to execute a given action that I have ever seen. Rules lawyers will search in vain for more than a few cracks to exploit. The scenario book includes rules for pbem (!), The Game As History, extensive notes on each leader/explorer/conquistador/personality/event in the game, two shortened scenarios, and ways to play the game to a time limit. In short, this is a ruleset written by a gamer, and one who loves background material. All that I see missing is a sheet outlining the sequence of play, which is a bit more involved than I can easily commit to memory - perhaps the only oversight in what looks to be a very tight game.

I had considerably more success soloing Britannia, partly because I had played before, partly because it lends itself quite well to solitaire play. The thing I did miss was all of the chrome surrounding each of the various Nations - It's much more difficult to keep track of whether or not the Danes can invade north of Lothian when you have 10 Nations to keep track of. In fact, if this game has an Achilles' Heel, it is the depth of chrome necessary to accurately reflect history. That, and the fact that most players have one big Nation that is supposed to generate the most points for them. For Yellow, that means the Romans and then not much to do until the last couple of turns. Sitting around for 15 minutes so that you can have that single Scot raider get smacked is not what I think most of us think of as "quality gaming," but then again this game is in it's third edition so there you go.

In my game, the big surprise was that the Saxons were so weak. The initial forays ran up against a brick wall in the form of the nearly-departed Romans, and as a result they were never the power that they typically are. Leader after leader showed up only to discover two units in two spaces, not much to work with. The Angles, however, did quite well, despite being allowed to invade a little further north than was legal (but then, the Romans and Danes had "bonus advantages" as well). The Danes wiped out the Angles pretty quickly as well. Up north, the Caledonians did OK until the Norsemen kicked them out of the islands and their core point base. The Brigantes held onto Strathclyde, the Belgae played punching bag, the Jutes did a great job of holding onto the Kent area, and the big "four kings" ending was a big anticlimax as the Danes (and successful Welsh) had scored so many points near the endgame that no one had much chance of catching Green.

I do have a few quibbles about the game. FFG usually does a great job with components, and this game is definitely an improvement visually over the AH and even Gibson versions. However, there are no ways to mark an area as having been "occupied" (in sole possession of, even briefly, a specific nation), although the rules do address this. There is also a dearth of 25 point VP chits - I could have used half the 5's and twice the 25's. Perhaps worst of all is that in trying to clean up the rules, FFG put a lot of the chrome in sidebars where it can be a bit difficult to locate. Trying to figure out where Arthur can come in with his cavalry took longer than it should have, for instance.

There are still a few rules holes, which is pretty inexcusable at this point. For example, the rules on the Belgae submitting don't say whether or not they have the same set of rules as the Brigantes, Picts, and Welsh, only that they "unsubmit" at the start of turn 2. This could have been much clearer, and I hope it will be addressed online. Also, some of the rules for the Kingship at the end of the game are a bit confusing in places - it took me three tries to figure out that Cnut could be King at the end of the Danes' turn rather than at the end of the game turn.

Aside from what is really an inexcusable (but historically necessary) amount of chrome, and a system that leaves players twiddling their thumbs for a bit too long in various points in the game, I really like the overall system. I know that there were attempts to adapt it for India, Iberia, and (IIRC) Russia at various times, with varying success. If nothing else, the fact that it makes for a pretty great solitaire game (thus countering the thumb-twiddling) makes it a worthwhile addition to my collection, even if I do own the AH version.

Next up, a little Sunday afternoon gaming...

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