Saturday, August 12, 2006

Warrior Knights First Impressions

Mel is out of town this week, so I've been getting in a lot of gaming. Besides the solo Sands game covered in the previous entry, I also went to RCG's South Tuesday session last week, went to Eric's for an 18xx game on Thursday, and will go to Matt's for the Central Tuesday session in a couple of days. As if that weren't enough, I also had a few people over on Saturday to try out the reissue of Warrior Knights. I never played the original game, so I can't compare it, but I can say that this is a very promising game. Michael, Chuck, Alex, and Patrick came over to help me find out if the new version was worth the paper it was printed on.

In Warrior Knights, you play a "Baron" who sits in his stronghold for the entire game. Fortunately, you have "Nobles" that you can live through vicariously, and they romp around the board taking cities and getting into all sorts of trouble, albeit sanctioned trouble. There are economies for voting (which allows players to enact laws, bestow offices, among other things), faith (which helps alleviate revolts and lets you decide who gets the benefit or pain of random events), military might (for fighting and taking cities), and influence, which you get for cities and occasional other things, and act as VP to determine who wins.

Along the way, you have a deck of action cards. Each turn, you take six action cards from your deck (all decks are the same), and divide them up into three piles based on when in the turn things will come up - early, middle, or late turn. There are also two generic events that go into each turn portion, so that you end up with 2n+2 total cards for each part of the turn, where n is the number of players. The game moves forward with each card turned over and the player in question taking the action. For example, I might decide that I will have to pay my troops in the very near future, so I might play a Levy Taxes card in the first pile, hoping it will come up before the taxes have to be paid. A bit like real life, actually.

Once an action has been taken, the card goes into one of three discard stacks for Wages (paying the troops), Taxes (making money), and Assembly (voting on laws). When the number of cards in one of those stacks gets up to twice the number of players, that specific special action happens immediately following the action taken by the card in question. A few cards give you a choice of where to discard, but most go to one specific pile. Making this more interesting is that when the next turn comes up, you are unlikely to have gotten back any of the cards you used unless one of the special actions was triggered, so thinking a bit ahead is a good idea.

Finally, there is also a Mercenary Draft, where you can play markers onto a drafting track. Once the track fills up (n+1 spaces), players can purchase mercs from the display, with the option to buy extras if you have other markers further down the track and all of the mercs you buy come from the same country (Tuscans, Poles, etc). It is smart to try to trigger paying wages for the mercs you have first, then triggering the draft, as otherwise you get to pay for the ones you just got twice if the opposite occurs. Unless, of course, you can afford it and others can't.

If you're getting the idea that there is a lot going on in this game, you'd be right. Fortunately, most of the subsystems seem to work pretty elegantly - you can tell that Bruno Faidutti had a hand in keeping the system streamlined, and that's a good thing.

A number of Influence tokens are put in the Game Timer area, 12n is the standard number. Once these have been collected (mostly through controlling cities at the end of the turn), the game ends. I've been told that 15 is a better number in terms of overall game arc, although it does result in a longer game. In our case, I'm sure that another 15 tokens would have resulted in one more game turn that would have seen quite a bit of player combat - I believe there were only about three player combats in our game in total, making it feel like it was mostly about taking neutral cities. As such, those who took cities quicker were the ones who won the game, which was a bit unsatisfying. We only had four Assemblies as well, and I think we could have used one more.

The game moved forward quickly, although it is important for the Chairman of the Assembly to a) keep play moving at a brisk pace, and b) not get his unplayed action cards mixed up with the played cards. We started with instructions around 10:20am, played until 3:30pm with a break for lunch at the nearby pub, so around 4.5 hours total. For a first game, that's pretty good, and I think that a four-player game with experienced players could easily come in under four hours. I've heard lots of comments that 5 hours with 12 influence points per player is optimistic, but I just don't see it unless people are spending too much time deciding what to do with actions and in which order. For those players, I recommend a timer.

Everyone felt like they made mistakes. I personally blew it by sending an army with one too few units to take an overseas area, only to fail my first attack, figure out that I could break the walls down a bit in the next turn, then had Michael zip in, kick me out, and I never did get the space back. By the time I figured out we would be out of influence quickly, I just couldn't get anyone where they needed to be to make attacks (you only get to use a noble once per turn, and only two of your action cards let it move *and* attack in the same turn, both of which were in a discard pile on the last turn). As such, the endgame was a bit anticlimactic, although I think this was more to the learning curve than a game flaw - at least any more than with any other multi-player strategy game. In the end, Alex won with 17 influence, to Michael's 16 (he was beat out by Patrick for the Holy War points that would have given him the game), with Chuck and Patrick at 15 and me way behind with only 12.

For a game with a lot of little subsystems, WK moves very smoothly. We put one player in charge of keeping track of how high the discard piles were getting, one in charge of mercs, one in charge of the assembly motions, and it all moved along rather nicely. I get the feeling that we played a little *too* nicely, and a little too segregated in terms of territory. It's tough to go after a leader if they're off in a corner of the board and difficult to get to - movement is somewhat limited in this game except if moving by road. Understanding exactly how many troops you need and where you need them is important, even early, and so I also recommend playing your first game with 10n influence so that you can see where your nobles need to be - you can't just add in more troops when you feel like it, especially if the unit in question is overseas. No troops for you!

Downtime wasn't really a problem. Even if your cards didn't come out for a while (with five players, that can be 20 cards worst case), most cards are resolved very quickly - you get a faith token, or you place a marker on the merc track. The game slows down when players fight, have to decide which of the five actions on the Versatile Strategy card you want to take, and in planning which events will go where, but even these rarely took more than two or three minutes to resolve at worst. The Assembly takes about 5 minutes, but it only happens a few times a game, and everyone is involved (unless you are voteless - you spend your votes when you cast them, making them more political capital than votes). While I'm not sure that six would be a good number for this game, five is certainly doable, and four is probably optimal in terms of having room to expand as well as allowing for a 15-Influence/player timer and staying under four hours.

All in all, this one is a winner, and certainly something that will come out at Sunriver this fall. Thanks, guys, for helping me give this one a shot!

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