Thursday, December 28, 2006

Mike's Game Day

Mike is generous enough to host an all-day gaming session at his house during the Christmas break, and in the past I've been out of town as we usually went down to Ashland, OR a few days before the new year (and I went berserk at Funagain Games). Since my sister no longer lives in Ashland, and Funagain is no longer fun, we're usually around for this session and I really look forward to it.

I was the first one there, of course, and so Mike and I pulled out Combat Commander so that he could see how it worked. We played the first scenario, which is the one Chuck spanked me on in our first playing, so I knew what *not* to do - hold onto the initiative in lieu of getting my squads in the center of the board into place. Problem was, I didn't start with a move card! Plus, the "open" objective was that all voluntary exits (moving off the enemy's side of the board) were doubled, so the objectives might not have had any points at all. Of course, my secret objective was that each objective was worth two points, so my strategy was to take as many useful spots as possible on the board and hold them.

Things went pear-shaped for Mike fairly early - he drew few Move cards, and his Recovery and Rout rolls were terrible, so much so that I ended up driving two of his units (one a leader) off of the board. Strangely, the routed leader showed up later on my edge of the board, but Mike never got the chance to move him off as we had two very quick Time! trigger events that ended the game. The Germans (me) ended up winning pretty handily, as Mike's secret objective was 1 points per objective hex, so with me holding four of them even getting his leader off the board for four points wouldn't have helped.

Jesse showed up about halfway into the game, and he ended up playing the Germans for me about halfway in. Doug and Mimi showed up not long after, and while Mimi went to do a jigsaw puzzle, Doug watched the rest of the game, comparing it to ASL (as so often happens). Both he and Jesse are ASL players, or have been in the past, so they had a pretty easy time seeing the differences.

Combat Commander will see more playing time for me in 2007 than any other game I own. While not the most accurate tactical wargame out there, it fits my personal ideals of complexity, duration, variety, and tension to a tee. If this doesn't win a Charlie, someone should be shot. Followed by an event trigger.

We were still waiting for KC and Rita who were a good hour late, so we gave up and pulled out Perikles, the new Wallace title published by Warfrog and distributed through Fantasy Flight (it looks like a Warfrog title, not a FFG title). Ready? Here goes: You choose influence tiles to place control markers in one of six Greek cities during the Peloppenesian (yes, I'm sure I've spelled it wrong) War, as well as nominate markers for leadership and also "assassinating" (removing) other players' markers depending up what influence tiles you drew. After every player has five influence tiles, you then finish nominating markers for ruling each city. When all cities have two candidates, the one with the higher number of markers (tie going to who was nominated first) gets the leadership and thus control of the city's armies and fleets. If you don't control a city, you get to run the Persian forces, who have nothing to lose.

With me so far? There are seven battles fought every turn, each one having a variety of points from 3 to 7 (most at 3-5), each one defending a specific city on the board. Players then use their influence tiles chosen earlier to place forces from their controlled armies to attack or defend on various battles, and can burn markers from the cities they control to add additional forces. Once all players have finished this step, each battle is fought (and I'm not going there, but there's a lot of tension involved and a decent chance for an upset in some cases), and the winner gets the location tile for that battle.The loser loses units, and if the attacker wins the defending city loses a certain amount of prestige. Finally, each leader for each city dies and a statue is erected. You do this three times, unless Athens or Sparta loses all of their prestige before the last round. Since they have the lion's share of battles they defend, it is possible (and we thought likely in the second turn of our game.

It is my opinion that this is the most tightly crafted game Wallace has produced yet. The various systems all mesh together quite nicely, and taking advantage of a situation will have a cost down the road. For example, you lose markers in a city when you win an election based on how many markers your opponent had there, but they don't lose anything but their candidate. When you use markers to place extra units in battles, you lose the use of those markers in that city to help next turn, and all markers are worth points at the end of the game regardless of the prestige of the city. If you pick lots of influence tiles that allow you to place two markers, you get to place two military units later, but you also have to go before players that have single placement influence tiles.

At the game end, you get one point per marker in a city, points for each statue based on the prestige of the city (from 0 to 9), and points for each battle you won. Our final scores were fairly close, ranging from 62 to 49. We did make one serious rules mistake that I suspect made the game less close than it might have been - Persians can remove any single marker from the board rather than from the city of the units you are placing, which may have meant that Doug Walker and Jesse (who ended up with the Persians in our game) might have been able to win one or two more battles than they did, although it did help them get control of cities more easily in the following turns. We discovered the mistake into the second turn and decided to play in a consistent manner rather than correct the mistake.

In the first turn, I took control of Thebes, Megara, and Argos, while Mike took Athens and Corinth, while Jesse was the Spartans. There were several Athenian battles, so Mike ended up largely defending his cities while Jesse and I only had one or two locations to defend, while Walker took the Persians. As in most of the future battles, we tended to play conservatively, defending our locations rather than aggressively attacking other cities. An interesting note about battles - if you control Athens and Corinth, say, you can't attack an Athenian location with a Corinthian force, although you can allow them to defend. Also, players can only defend if the controller wants them to, both as allies and as the primary defender. In other words, if you control a city and want it to go down, you can in effect allow it. This is a deep game. I ended up not winning any battles I was involved in, and losing a battle for Thebes, so things weren't starting out well for me despite me getting three statues.

In the second turn, I got the Spartans in an attempt to take out the Athenians in the second turn as they had two open boxes and three battles to defend against. This time Jesse was the Persians, with the other cities split between Mike (Athens and a couple others) and Walker. Even with a fairly effective bluff attack, I wasn't able to defeat any Athenian locations, although I did score 11 points for defense of my Spartan locations. At this point, Doug had 16 Location VP, Jesse with 15, and Mike and I with 11. I had four statues on the board, but everyone though I was going to win for sure, which surprised me, at least at the time.

For the surprise third turn, I took the tack of grabbing as many leaderships as possible on the theory that I would at least get some points for statues. I was so successful that I managed to get Athens and Megara, a total of six statues. With six cities over three turns, that's 1.5 cities above the average, a big help when counting points at the end. I managed to take another 10 points in locations, and even leave more than ten markers on the board, and won by four points with a score of 62 over Mike's 58. Walker was the 49, Jesse the 53, a reflection of how many times each were the Persians. I suspect the scores would have been very close had we played the correct rule.

Our total playing time was about 3.5-4 hours, not bad for a game I had to teach (and that is difficult to understand until you've played a turn). You take a little time figuring out which influence tiles to draft in the early part of the turn, and also what military units to deploy near the end, although the rest of the game moves right along. As a nice contrast to the deep thought portions of the turn, the battle section can be a lot of fun, with crazy die rolling and some great tension. In one battle in the third turn, Jesse and I were neck and neck for the entire trireme battle, although much of that was both of us failing to make our rolls at all! This lighter portion of the game provides great "comic relief" and is perhaps the most brilliant part of the game.

As it was, our game went on just a little too long, but I'm pretty sure that anyone who has played before can move the game along faster. Three hours is a very reasonable time to expect the game to play in with four. We did think that was a good number, with more players the game might be even better, but it may also be a bit more chaotic (although you do scale the number of influence tiles drawn, so it should take just as long). Three players may even be better, as there will be less chance of the Persians showing up.

Here's the other brilliant part of the game - since you have a limited number of military units to place, even if you take control of four cities you still only have five influence tiles worth of placements, allowing your opponents to gang up on you with all of their units. As such, the game tends to self-balance quite nicely and the result is always in doubt. In fact, I wasn't at all sure that I would win, although with the lion's share of leaders and decent location and marker points I felt like I had a good shot. My take? Wallace's best, even better than Age of Steam, if not as variable as that classic.

At this point, Peter and Jesse took off, and Rita, KC, Mike, and Walker (I'm calling you Texas from now on, Doug, for Walker - Texas Ranger) played Die Haendler, a game I hadn't played since the last millenium. I helped Mimi work on the puzzle, which was far from finished, and we got a lot done before I had to leave. I really enjoy jigsaw puzzles, but they do tend to suck you in and not let you go - I spent two full hours working on the puzzle when I went to play games!

The party was still going when I left, and George was even showing up to play as I was leaving. Thanks to Mike for generously opening up his house, I always enjoy these long gaming days. This was a lot of gaming for me this past couple of weeks, and almost all of it was great fun. Next up - Central Tuesday at Matt's the day after New Year's.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Learning Games

In the last couple of weeks, I've had the opportunity to teach a couple of games I love to friends. So how did it go?

First was World of Warcraft, the Boardgame, to my friend Connor. Connor likes games, and in the past he's been one of my top 2-player game partners. As a guy who loves role-playing games, I figured he'd be a natural for World of Warcraft's character development system. We played using the basic game (not the Shadows of War expansion to keep the options to a minimum), a competitive game with two characters each. I was the Horde player, he was the Alliance.

World of Warcraft is a pretty easy game to teach, although I think it's a bit harder to learn (if that makes sense). There are many options each player has in the course of a turn, at least if you're playing two characters. I kept it all at a pretty high level, covering what the general goals were, what the various dice were good for, the differences between using instant and active powers, and the five basic things you can choose from for each action. Still, there is a considerable amount of complexity in understanding how battles work, and knowing what powers and talents can combine to good effect.

We played for three hours, and were about 2/3rds of the way done when it came time for Connor to head home. We were both very close to fourth level in our two characters (each), and we were using the Travelin' Dragon overlord. Connor felt a bit overwhelmed, I think, but so long as you have an experienced player involved, it's not that hard a game to teach - you just start playing and demonstrate the various elements as you go. Better for the experienced player to be in the Horde, as they can demonstrate training from the very beginning.

That said, I still think the game is just as interesting in solitaire form, and I don't know that I'll try to bring it out again for two-player gaming, especially not with Combat Commander available.

The other game I taught was GMT's classic WWI card-driven wargame, Paths of Glory. Chris Brooks had this on his "burn-down" list (games he wanted to play this year or get rid of), and so I offered to spend an afternoon teaching him the system. The game is the second of the "strategic" card-driven games (For The People was ostensibly the first, although the Avalon Hill version is hard to find), but comes with two player decks, further divided up into three sub-decks that enter play as the game progresses. Unfortunately, the game takes about 8-10 hours to play to completion, and we had nothing like that amount of time, especially considering it would be Chris's first game.

Chris had read the rules, but you simply can't just pick this game up that way. I really hadn't considered that I'd be teaching the game, but I have played 20+ games over the years and while I don't consider myself to be a good player, I know my way around the rules. As such, I gave kind of a scattershot coverage of the rules, focusing heavily on the strategic situation on the board and what players had to be aware of when playing. I took the Central Powers, as the burden of attack is on them to some extent.

We only got four turns in, but I was mildly disappointed that we couldn't continue. The Germans had made good progress into Belgium, but the French were recovering nicely and I wasn't getting much in the way of replacement points onto the board. On the Russian Front, I was just starting to bring up an extra German army to start working through Poland, and there hadn't been a concerted effort by the Russians in Galicia, but the AH were starting to make trouble for the Serbs (who managed to roll a trench on one try in Belgrade). The MEF had landed off the coast of Adana, so things were also getting warm in the Near East, but just barely.

Chris's view after our short game was that this is a title that needs to be played repeatedly to be enjoyed, and he is absolutely right. To be honest, I rarely have the chance to play long games like this anymore, especially since I no longer go to WBC or play on ACTS or online (too many 3am's sitting up in bed thinking I shouldn't have made the move I just did). As for shorter games on topics his kids will enjoy, I think he's out of luck in this genre unless he can score a copy of Hannibal - everything else is either too long or not an interesting option for his kids, and I simply can't recommend Shifting Sands because of the card cycling problems (how the game goes is too heavily dependent on when cards come up, and too many events are "must-play" simply to get your deck down to a size that you can get through it in the course of a year). I did, however, recommend...

Wait for it...

Combat Commander.

Regardless, I was delighted to at least give Chris a chance to evaluate this classic. Like all CDG's with player-specific decks, it must be played repeatedly to be understood and enjoyed, and although I personally feel that this is a worthwhile thing to do, it just doesn't fit Chris's lifestyle and time availability. I will have to get this on the table again at the next WBC, though, it really is a game I miss playing.

I did think that the way I taught the game (giving my opponent a high level overview of what things they might want to accomplish over the course of a turn, giving specific warnings when a potential problem arose such as holes in the line) worked pretty well. I've also taught it by having my opponent tell me what he'd do, then making alternate suggestions. It really is a problematic game to teach, it's almost better to have two new players going at it with an old-hand helping with rules and occasional suggestions.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Command and Colors - Ancients Vs Battlelore

I had a chance to play C&C:Ancients (Ancients from here on out) versus Jesse on Thursday, and a game of Battlelore versus Chuck today. This was a great chance for me to compare the two takes on this system.

Most of you know I was not a big fan of Battle Cry or Memoir '44, largely because I felt the games didn't really evoke the period they were trying to. While I think the game system has serious problems with balance (too much reliance on historical battles that are unbalanced), and this continues into Ancients and Battlelore, these two games are definitely the pinnacle of the system.

First, a comparison of the components. You could not have more of a difference between the two games, largely because Ancients is published by a wargame company and Battlelore by a Euro company. Ancients has a heavy stock unmounted board and rather bland pencil-art terrain (although almost all of these battles were fought in plains terrain, so the choice is more than justifiable). Battlelore has a mounted board that is painted, as are the terrain tiles, and terrain is much more varied (including bridges and "special" terrain that ties in with the War Council rules). The units in Ancients are wood blocks with cel-filled graphics on the stickers, while Battlelore uses miniatures that are damned hard to tell apart except for a few differently colored bases and a bunch of banners/flags that differentiate whose side the units belong to.

In a nutshell, Battlelore goes for flash while Ancients goes for functionality, and to be quite honest functionality wins out. There is literally no reason for Days of Wonder to have done anything other than one infantry type, one cavalry type, and one archer type (in addition to the specialized Dwarf and Goblin types). Oh sure, there's a giant spider, but it's pretty much the same as the elephants in Ancients. The cavalry figures also have a tendency to be "flattened" which is easy to fix but annoying. The Ancients blocks are easy to move, easy to store, and (oddly) more colorful. To be fair, there are several differentiations between the various "light" units in Ancients, but it's only slightly annoying as there are few enough units. Otherwise, it's easy to tell mounted units apart easily (they have bigger blocks), and parsing the board is very easy compared to Battlelore. Finally, my Battlelore board is already warping, and I've had it for two days.

Second, the rules. If you have never seen a C&C game before, there is no question that Battlelore will teach you the system in a step-by-step process that is quite well done. However, there are graphics *everywhere* and I feel like I'm looking at advertising copy. Ancients has a decent ruleset, although there were quite a few clarifications made in their first expansion game, especially in their examples, so they have some work to do in this area (although this was also their first C&C publication, while Battlelore is Days' second after Memoir). Where the Battlelore rules completely fall down is when you have to look something up. As a reference source, they are a mess. Even Days' plans to make the various rules for cards searchable via the web, leading me to believe the intend us to have a laptop handy when we play. Ancients, on the other hand, has rules for leaders spread out through several sections, making it a trick to find a specific rule. Do you look in the section titled Leaders? Movement? Combat? You won't know until you look. This round is a lock.

As for the rules themselves, there are a few differences. "Bold" units in Battlelore can battle back and ignore one flag result, while in Ancients you can always battle back if you aren't forced to retreat, and no units are specifically bold (as are dwarves in Battlelore). The entire Lore/War Council ruleset doesn't exist in Ancients, but there are no leader counters in Battlelore, nor are there any cards that take advantage of said leaders. Ancients also comes with more "special" units - Chariots and Elephants in the core game, compared with just Giant Spiders in Battlelore (although there are two other critters out there if you count the Giant as something you can actually pick up somewhere other than eBay). Most units in Ancients can advance after combat if they eliminate or retreat the unit they attack, although both games' cavalry can pursue. Units in Ancients retreat at the same rate in which they move, which makes some of them quite brittle (but historically so - light cavalry got the heck out of Dodge on a pretty regular basis when things got hot and heavy). Only Spiders and Goblins retreat more than a single space per retreat flag. Finally, all light units other than Auxillia in Ancients can evade specific units, making a retreat in exchange for not taking sword hits (and light cavalry not risking a big retreat off-board).

The biggest differences between the two has to come down to Lore vs Evasion in any meaningful way. Both are ways to minimize luck of the draw, and perhaps Lore succeeds in this in a better way, but at a huge cost in complexity. I can see this becoming a huge issue in terms of interacting spells, to some extent as happens in most CCGs. However, evasion feels more historical and appropo for me in Ancients. I'd have to give a very slight edge to Battlelore in this respect, but only by a hair.

Next up is expandability. GMT is already providing extra scenarios in their house magazine, C3i, and they also provide bonus scenarios to customers that pre-order games. I'd really rather see them pubish scenarios online, but to be honest there is nothing stopping players from doing this. In fact, Battlelore is seeing the same thing happen, but all of the scenarios so far are unofficial. Days' also provides (or will provide, as of this writing) an online scenario generator. I have no expectation that GMT will do the same, although it is entirely possible that a third-party may provide one (probably Windows based) if one isn't already out there.

As for official expansions, GMT has already created an Alexander the Great-based expansion with an entire set of new blocks and 22 scenarios. I applaud the new blocks even though they add cost, as the illustrations are of phalanx-era armies instead of the Roman legions, and include Indian and Persian armies as well. As such, GMT will be producing large and expensive expansions at the rate of a couple a year, at least for now (the second one focuses on the Gauls, and will come out in early 2007). In contrast, Days' marketing plans are to produce both larger army kits and single creature blister packs. While at first glance it may feel a bit like spending $4 for a single creature and it's rules seems a bit steep, or $20 for an army, at least you can get them one at a time and the cost compared to the GMT offerings is pretty close when all is considered, although you don't get the extra scenarios (although you do online). Again, a toss-up.

Finally, how do they play? This is hard to compare directly, as I was trying to figure out the lore system only to be drawing Cleric spells (when I didn't have a Cleric, but I did have everyone else) and I ended up casting a whopping two spells in the entire game. Compare this with at least a half-dozen evasions in my game with Jesse, and I have to consider Lore to be considerably more prone to luck in a game that already has far too much luck as it is.

In both games, I had a lot of trouble getting the cards I needed to move and attack with critical units, and of course this is a core knock against the system as a whole. However, in Battlelore I had a five-card hand (compared to four in Ancients), and exactly a single card that would have allowed me to move one of the two heavy units on my right flank. While this was a single game, it was still annoying. I also kept drawing battle and lore cards that would have been great had I been the English at Agincourt with lots of archers, completely useless to me in our game.

I mention this because I give the nod to Ancients, although I'm aware that my take on Battlelore is heavily colored by my frustration in that game, although it was much closer. There are other reasons I like Ancients better, though:

o Easier to parse the board

o Easier to move units on the map

o Easier to set up the game

o Easier to find rules

o Evasion is always "on"

o Lore is more luck

o Don't need to be supported to battle back

o More unit differentiation (especially with light units)

o Historical events informing how the systems works

o Leader units give tactical flexibility, additional firepower

Battlelore, on the other hand, only has a couple of things going for it:

o More colorful rules (the map and cards are, if anything, too busy)

o War Council/ Lore rules create more variation from game to game

o More scenarios will be available over time, although many will be home-brewed

o Expansions can be added in a bit at a time and will almost certainly be more extensive over time

o Can be expanded in almost any way desired, as there is no history that must be followed

The one thing that Battlelore really needs, and would give it the edge for me, is a random conflict generator. Most scenario-based wargames like Combat Commander and ASL make use of these, although most people who enjoy historical games prefer historical situations. I'd actually like to see GMT do this for Ancients, and if they did it would lock up Ancients as the best iteration of this vererable, if perhaps flawed, gaming system. At least the games are fairly short.

I should note that neither game uses victory point spaces, as was done in Memoir in an attempt to give players a reason to fight (this was a bit of a problem with Battle Cry). Battlelore does include some terrain that gives Lore benefits, but otherwise you go at it because that's what you are supposed to do. Of course, neither game has devastating artillery like Battle Cry and Memoir do, so there is more incentive to "bring it", and perhaps the VP spaces aren't needed. Note: there may be VP spaces in Battlelore - I have not read all of the rules, but there are certainly no such rules in Ancients.

Of course, I'm also a wargamer (which both of these games are), and like more wargamers I like some history to base the game on. To be fair, Battlelore can be played as a historical game without the Lore rules, but I can't speak for whether or not the game evokes medieval battles in the same way that Ancients evokes antiquity. At least, not yet. For now, however, I'm much more likely to pull out Ancients if I'm playing another wargamer, Battlelore if I'm not.

Combat Commander - First Impressions

I published this first-take review on the 'Geek a few minutes ago after Chuck and I played this game for a first time today.

The verdict - The game rocks. If you've ever wanted to play Squad Leader or Up Front, but felt that the rules, acronyms, or clunky mechanisms got in the way, this is the game you've waited for. If you've ever wished Ambush! worked for two players, this is for you.

Here's my review...

This is a short review of GMT's new tactical WWII game, Combat Commander. My group has been anxiously anticipating this game coming out, and I spent a good chunk of Friday (the day it came) clipping counters, reading the rules, and going through the example of play, all to prepare for playing my friend Chuck on Saturday.

First, the components (as always). In general, very good. Chuck felt the cards were on the flimsy side, and I suppose they could be beefier, but considering that they're going straight into protectors and deck boxes, that shouldn't be an issue. The box is the same size as Command & Colors: Ancients, which is to say bookshelf-sized, but deep enough to hold a Plano box for counter storage. Too many of the bookcase boxes are too thin to hold a deck box, so the extra depth is appreciated.

I really like the counters, but of course there are a couple of nits. The grey and green counters are very similar in color, and in less than stellar lighting that could be a problem. Also, for some reason I keep confusing the leader and team counters, although neither was a problem during play.

Finally, the rules. I've been advocating this particular style of rules (give the basic flow, then break out specifics in the back of the rules, combining the strengths of user's guides with reference manuals). Combined with an excellent index, this is the best rules set I've ever seen, and I've been wargaming for 30 years. Well done, Chad and GMT. These rules will set the standard for years to come.

Next, learning the game. The process referred to in the rules, reading the Components, Core Rules, Orders, and Op Fire action entry, is possibly a bit too much. What I did was read the Components and Core Rules, then set up the example of play and ran through it. As I got to a section that discussed, say, movement, I'd go look up that rules section. It worked well enough that Chuck and I got through our first game (Scenario 1) in less than two hours the next day. Of course, I have enough experience with Squad Leader and Up Front (the obvious ancestors of this game) that most of the concepts were very familiar.

Finally, how did it play? Quite well. We played the first two scenarios, with me as the Germans in both cases. In the first, I foolishly held the initiative, allowing Chuck to move first. My primary weapon squad and leader moved into Op Fire range, of which one broke, and the other was broken by a sniper. It went downhill from there, and I never felt like I ever got a chance to get back in the game - I kept getting tagged by snipers while Chuck went untouched in the first few turns, and recovery cards were nowhere in sight for the Germans. We were considering this a learning game, so it tolerable, and I'd definitely move with the Germans before I even considered hanging on to the initiative.

In the second game, I was defending Bocage country from the American advance. I started out with a pretty strong defense (I put the light MGs up front, holding the heavies back along some obvious advancement lanes), only to have Chuck do quite well with his melee rolls - I lost the three I was involved in, despite having multiple Ambush cards in every case. I ended up losing before the Time marker hit the Sudden Death marker through loss of units, which was killing me - in every melee, I lost a leader and a squad. Clearly I was doing something wrong, but we agreed that luck was not with me in the second half of the scenario.

Still, I had a great time. The game takes the tactical feel of Squad Leader and pairs it with the strong elements of Up Front. UF was a great idea hampered by an unreadable and error-filled rulebook, not to mention amazingly involved attempts to handle the intricacies of manuever through cards. Unlike Squad Leader, terrain and weapons are approachable and consistant. If I could name a game that comes close to having the same feel, it would be the Victory Games' chestnut Ambush!.

We really only had one question not easily addressed by the rules, namely what constitutes the end of a movement activation (for purposes of placing smoke - can a unit place smoke after you've used up all of its MP?) Even then, it was pretty clear that you could, although I think this is an unusual situation.

By comparison, the other game I was really excited about getting this year, Shifting Sands, suffered from the twin CDG maladies of Must Play Events and When Does My Critical Event Show Up, exacerbated by too-large event decks. While the initial prognosis on that game was very good, it became clear that many cards simply had to be played in order to thin your deck down as a missed event would likely cost you the game and there were at least two chances for something like this to happen.

Combat Commander, on the other hand, by it's very nature can be balanced. While bad luck can play a role (and did to some extent in my two games), the games are short enough (our second game was about two hours as well), and the various victory conditions mean that even though you are losing units that you're only one really successful combat away from turning things around. In our second game, even though I was losing units I was also very close to winning on points if time ran out because of an extra 5 points for an objective that I still held, and had I won the last melee it would have been very close indeed.

Perhaps best, you are constantly deciding how to play cards. Do you take a shot at the unit about to advance into your position, or hold the card for it's ambush action? Answer (in this case) - Ambush. Definitely. Melee's are all or nothing, and every additional differential is incredibly important.

So who would like this game? Anyone who's wanted to play ASL but is daunted by the rules commitment and acronym insanity, who's really wanted to like Up Front but the rules and conceptual acrobatics get in the way, who's ever enjoyed Ambush but wished for a live opponent instead of an AI and paragraph system, who'd like to play a wargame that (insomuch as a game can) gives the kind of tension you would imagine you'd have in actual combat. Sans bullets whizzing by your head and you crapping your pants, that is.

Is it perfect? I'd say there are quite a few compromises - a big one is that mortars require a line of sight from the hex firing, and the only thing they bring is to avoid fire attack modifiers for intervening terrain such as hedges. There are no vehicles, although off-board artillery is simulated at a pretty accurate level. If you want a game that will give you complete control over your situation other than a few die rolls, this is not a game for you, and I suspect that a lot of hard-core ASLers won't be impressed. Still, considering that I was into this game in about two hours (to read the salient rules and to run the example), that's quite an accomplishment.

Once again, well done to Chad Jensen, the playtesters, and the developer. Considering this game only started being designed in it's current form a couple of years ago, it is quite well conceived. Brilliant.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Mondo Tuesday Session

12 people at my place for games at our regular Tuesday session. I may need to buy a new house sooner than later, as at one point we had Alex, Matt, and Carey playing a game on the counter between the kitchen and family room. Wow.

Who was there? Me, Matt, Mike, Carey, Alex, Liz, soon-to-be-official new guy Ian, hopefully-new-guy Zach, Tim, KC, Rita, and Jim. Yikes. A whole lot of gaming going on, no question. I can't really keep track of what goes on in the extra sessions, but I will mention them when I can remember them.

Six of us started out in the dining room playing Ave Caesar. True to form, I immediately screwed up a rule that cost Carey dearly in the first race. I'd hate to think I got a game right the first time (although I did pretty well in Aquedukt later on). This is a reprint of an old title where you are a chariot racer in a Circus Maximus. Each player in turn plays from a three card hand, which in turn is drawn from your player deck. All of the decks are identical, and as far as I can tell without a closer look there are four each of 1's, 2's, etc up to 6's. The game is very simple - you play a card, move your chariot that many spaces, then draw another card from your deck. The track has lots of bottlenecks where only a single racer can stop, along with lots of curves where being on the inside track will move you along faster. You also need to be sure to stop by the pit stop/drive through and wave to King Julie.

Each player plays in turn, none of this weenie "player in first goes first" stuff like in Formula De. You run three laps, get points for your placement, then flip the map over and do it again. If you're really good, you'll play the two tracks again, except going in the opposite direction. Winner is the one with the most points at game end. We didn't really keep track, although Zach and Liz both did well in both races as I remember. One other note - you have a fixed deck to work from, and if you constantly take the outer tracks you won't have enough points to even finish the race!

So how was it? Make no mistake, this is a very light game and one that hard-core gamers may not like. However, the game plays very quickly, and while you may not have quite as many decision points as you might like, there is still a lot of tension both in seeing if the guy right before you will cut you off or if you'll draw a high card that you need to get where you want to go for next turn. While it's more of a ride than a game, it's a pretty good ride. Also, the components are very nice (Carey used the term "over-produced - I'm afraid my rules screw up may have permanently ruined this game for him) - two nice tracks and very detailed chariots. Kind of a big box for what it is, but that's nothing new these days. Perhaps a very good 6 person filler.

We all broke up about the same time, so we mixed up our personnel. Alex, Carey, and Matt brought out Battlelore on the counter, while Ian, Jim, Liz, and I gave Aquedukt a shot. This game has gotten some mixed reviews on the 'Geek, but Matthew Baldwin gave it high praise in a Gift Guide he did (this is the guy who does Defective Yet, one of the best generally-gaming-themed blogs out there). Matt, if you're ever trapped overnight in Portland, give me a call and I'll put you up. I quite liked the game, although I can see why some might really dislike it.

In the game, you play real estate developers who are speculating on services becoming available for a given plot of land. Except it's in Rome. If your land doesn't have a water supply (directly next to a canal or one away from a double canal), you stand a chance of losing your permit. The canals remind me of the streetcars in Big City, and in fact quite a bit about this game reminds me of a very light version of Big City, but I think that's a good thing. The board is a big grid divided into regions with between 4 and 6 squares in each, 20 regions in all.

During your turn, you can do one of three things. First, you can place a spring on the map, anywhere as long as it's five or more intersections (traced orthagonally) from any other spring. Springs are good because they are the sources for canals. Second, you can place up to two canals on the borders between squares. Each spring can have two canals "springing" from it, the canals can't branch, and they can't intersect with another canal from another spring (I don't recall rules about "bowties" as in Wildlife Expedition, so we banned these as well). You can double them up, but only starting from the spring so that all upstream canals are doubled before any downstream ones are.

Finally, you can place up to three house tiles, and this is clearly where gamers might disagree about how good a game this is. You roll a 20 sided die, and then place any one of your house tiles in that space. The house tiles range from one to four in value, and the only rule is that if a space already has access to water you must play your lowest remaining value house in that space. There is no requirement to play in a watered space, but if you do it must be your worst. Also, if by placing a house tile you take the last space in a region, all houses that are not watered are removed and put back in the box. You may choose not to place a house after seeing your roll, but you forfeit any of your remaining rolls for the turn.

This leads to interesting strategies. In our game, I tried to use my one value house tiles to force others out of the game, and also to up my minimum house tile value for when I could play next to a canal. If you have the chance to play a tile so that a future (and doable) double canal could feed it, that's a great time to play one of your four tiles, then double the canal before you lose it to overbuilding. Clearly, the fact that you are rolling a die is what makes people dislike this game, but I don't think it's that much different to Acquire or Big City or Chinatown, and in fact it evens up the odds so that just because someone can build in a specific space doesn't lock you out. The fact that you might lose a four value house tile to overbuilding adds tension to the game, so I'm all for it.

The game ends when all 36 canals have been built and everyone has had an equal number of turns. In our game, Jim finished off the canals, but since he'd gone first, everyone else got to play the lottery - since there are no more canals, you are reduced to rolling the die three times and see if you get lucky. Liz and Ian did, I didn't, and so Ian won with 21, Liz with 20, me with 17, Jim with 15. It's a little hard to parse the board, to be honest, so it may be worthwhile to make up a scoring track to keep track of who has what points - had we been doing this, I think Jim would not have placed the final canals but instead played the lottery until someone else did. Regardless, this is a small nit in what is a very quick and fun three or four player game.

Jim and Ian took off at this point, and KC, Rita, Tim, Zach, and Mike were playing Alhambra in the other room, so Liz and I pulled out Balloon Cup, the much denigrated (by the Point2Point guys, anyway) Kosmos small-box game. I'd never actually finished a game, and I knew it was quick (Liz claimed she was ready to leave once Alex finished Battlelore), so out it came.

One thing I love about LIz, she has a very good competitive streak. Alex's game ended, I was trying to say goodnight to everyone who was leaving, and Liz kept herding me back to the game to finish. It was a nail-biter in some respects. I had a couple of locks on 3 and 4 cube areas, but couldn't draw any gray cards (Liz was hording them), and for a while it looked like anyone's game. However, I was able to take a critical 2 race that gave me two trophies, and had drawn a gray card that gave me the third a round later. As advertised, a quick and light game, but with decent tension that would be great for kids and anyone who's manliness isn't threatened by the word "Balloon".

Thanks to everyone who came, welcome to Ian, and I hope that Zach had a good enough time to come back on a regular basis (and that his class schedule allows for it). Merry Whatever to all!


Monday, December 18, 2006

Computer Formula De

Formula De was one of my early eurogame purchases, and I own almost all of the tracks (which makes it second only in total monetary investment to ASL, which I have yet to play). The game definitely has it's problems, perhaps one of the greatest being downtime. Still, I love the game, and if it wasn't so difficult to keep track of how many times each car has spent in a multi-turn corner, I'd probably pull it out for solitaire more often.

So, when I discovered that not only was there a freeware version of the game (I think it's freeware, see below) through a link on the 'Geek, but also that it was natively supported on Macs, I downloaded it almost immediately, along with every track I could find. I've played maybe 10 races now, and as you'd expect, have formed an opinion...

o Free is a great price.

o Support for Mac and Linux is awesome. Merci, mon amis!

o The game has all of it's advanced rules: weather, crap on the track, pit stops that can be slow or fast (which I don't think is an official rule, at least in my version), all sorts of things. Even qualifying laps!

o The feel is really great - no more counting spaces, no more waiting for others to count spaces. You put your pointer over the die you want to roll, and the game shows you exactly what spaces you can move to within that range and which ones are more perilous than others. A three lap race with ten cars takes about 20 minutes, compared with close to three hours for a board race. This makes the game much more playable.

Now for the knocks...

o The entire game is in French. Not really a knock, just a problem for a stupid American like me whose idea of a foreign language is Taco Bell. As such, I have no idea whether or not I should be paying them money for this.

o The extra tracks took several trys to download, and I finally gave up and did them individually other than via the "big package" load. So far as I can tell, every track that was released up to 32 is in the set, maybe a few more. I was never familiar with the track names, just the locations on the American covers, so I can't really tell easily. That's great, but every file I downloaded came with a dozen folders, only one of which had the actual track. Given that the download came over as "Formula De 17", it took a little while to find and extract them all, more than it took to run a couple of races. Hey, it's free.

o I am starting to get the idea that the AI compensates for any weaknesses by weighting the humans die rolls toward the low end, or maybe even cheating. If there is a number I do *not* want to roll, I consistently roll it, even if there is only a 1-in-12 chance or lower of hitting it. This is a game of playing the odds, and while I think I'm not bad at that sort of thing, I'm clearly hitting a bad streak with this game. I sure hope so, because this is a game where a cheating AI will get real old real fast.

o This is a bloody game. I've seen cars get knocked out of the game within a couple of turns of the start. Sometimes two or three cars out of ten. When I've done well, I've been the only car left on the road. For 3-lap races, I consistently finish in the last surviving car position, which is usually first through third. I can't imagine this is part of the normal design, this is not a game where getting knocked out in the first ten minutes of play for a three-lap race would attract players. While it has only happened to me once, it was because I failed to notice that the corner required two stops until after I'd rolled the dice.

Otherwise, I'm delighted to have found a way to play this game solitaire where I don't get burned out on counting spaces and using ten dice to remember which cars have stopped twice on a corner. And it's very fast.

The site also includes a play-by-internet section, but I can't figure out whether I need to pay money to do this or something else. You can easily hot-seat the game, although that would obviously make it somewhat slower.

Oh, I forgot the coolest part - after a race, you get a movie of the cars moving around the track. Slower gears move the cars more slowly, it really creates a very nice summary of the game.

I'm too damned lazy to remember how to insert a link, so you'll just have to copy and paste this one below to find the game...

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

SouTu Session, 12/12/06

You know what my favorite part about Christmas is? Finding out that someone has hacked our credit card two weeks before the holiday. Especially when the person telling me this over the phone is clearly not a native English speaker ("can you spell that? Slowly?" They must think I'm a billion years old). Then they suggest we log on online to see what charges are ours and are not, and we are locked out. Sayonara, Capital One, you're complete lack of customer support has lost you another customer.

But I'm supposed to be Mr. Whiney on Dice Tower, not here in my blog! So I will take this opportunity to recap our South Tuesday session at Mike's this past Tuesday instead!

There were a ton of people there - me, Peter, KC, Mike (obviously, it's his house), Alex, Liz, Ben, Jim, Tim, and George. While everyone was still arriving, Ben set up his Tumbling Dice game and Alex, Liz, he, and myself gave it a shot.

Tumbling Dice is yet another "flicking" game, except instead of wooden disks, you flick dice off of a platform onto a very nice wooden board. The board consists of four tiers - from top to bottom; the "launch" pad, the 0x/1x level (the largest), the 2x, and the 3x levels. There are also three small 4x areas below the 3x area. At the back of the 3x and 4x areas are pins to prevent some of the dice from continuing off of the board. It's a lot easier to understand if you see the board, but trust me that it's a very nice setup.

Each player has four dice that they flick off of the launch pad one at a time in player order (so player 1 flicks one die, then player 2, etc, until all players have flicked four dice each). If your dice falls off of the board, it won't score any points. However, there is no penalty for knocking off someone else's die off of the board. Likewise, it is possible for your die to hit another die so that it will score more or fewer points by moving to another area of the board or changing which side is face up.

Scores are computed by multiplying each die on the board by the area it's in once all dice have been flicked. The highest score then begins the next round, and works it's way down from there. After four rounds, you add up all of your scores and the highest wins.

The game plays very quickly and has almost no downtime. Much of the fun comes from hitting other people's dice and knocking them off, although just as often the dice ended up in a higher multiplier area with a better number! Having the pins at the back of the board makes for even more unpredictability.

On the downside, this is not a cheap game, and this is not a small game. At $50 at discount in a box that would hold perhaps four or so "normal" boardgames (it's even bigger than the Carabande box), this is a bit of a stretch purchase unless you and/or your family like flicking games. I can see my family digging this when we're all out at Sunriver, and it would take up shelf space there rather than at my home, but it won't make it into my home collection for those reasons. If you don't mind those issues, this one is a winner.

Of course, Cooley's Law does play a role here, as I surged past Ben in the final round with 43 points for a crushing win!

By now, everyone was there (told you TD was quick), so we broke up into a group of four playing Anno 1503 (Mike, Tim, Peter, and KC), while the rest of us played Atlantic Star. I reported in more depth on the game in my last Sunriver report, when we played a game with KC and Rita. In our game, only Jim and I had played before, and Jim had played last weekend so I had someone to help me remember all of the rules as I did some 'splainin'.

I think a key strategy in this game is to put out a decent but not necessarily killer cruise line that you don't feel too bad about using later on for a loan, and this is exactly what I did with a four-line Mediterranean cruise that I promptly put in the one-star column (which means even worst place gets decent points). I was able to get my big 6-line Pacific cruise out without having to take a loan as well, but I'd done well with my 3-line Baltic cruise, which was a five-star and I was in first with 23 points, which I kept until the end. In the end, I had to spend my last dollar (after two loans) to get my last card for my last cruise launched intact, and that with two cards in-hand. Had I not finally gotten an E line card, I would have been two points out of first place in the two-star column, which would have let Liz sneak by me for the win!

This is a game that plays best with 6, simply because there is so much competition for the cards and so much chance to ruin someone's day by wiping the cards off of the agency board. I still think that Show Manager has a better theme, but the game is exactly the same and one of the five best games for six out there (Medici and Elfenlands also come to mind). And, I won my second game of the evening!

After this game, Alex and Liz headed for home so we gave the newest Sunriver Games title, Incan Gold, a try. This game has a certain amount of controversy surrounding it, in no small part because of the 'Geek, but I will state here for the record that the folks who run Sunriver games have the highest ethical standards, and in no way did they "steal" anything, intellectual or otherwise, in the creation of this game.

Incan Gold is a slightly modified version of Diamant, the very cool but overpriced press-your-luck game. The theme has moved to exploring a Mayan temple, and the artwork is excellent and evokes the theme quite well. Instead of gems, the "money" now consists of very nice plastic bits intended to represent nuggets of turquoise, gold, and onyx. There are still a few production issues to clear up, but the game is essentially finished. The only rules change is the addition of an increasing number of "artifact" cards that go to whoever is the sole person to bail in a given turn, unlike unclaimed nuggets that get split up among the bailing players. I have no experience with Diamant, so I really can't compare, but it occurs to me that the addition of artifacts gives players who find themselves seriously behind a (small) chance to catch up if things go their way in the final round.

We played with the maximum, 8, and I have to say that this is perhaps the best longish filler game out there for that number, putting it in the company of, uhm, let's see, uhm...

Some help here?

OK, Saboteur. But I like this better. Yes, Dave, I like it better, even though you told us dozens of times that we should get this game for that very reason. You. Were. Right. Although it may be just a bit too long to qualify as filler.

Peter won, partly through picking exactly the right time to bail in order to get very good points for artifacts and loose stones. Mike did an awesome job of sticking around in an early round that netted him enough points for second, and I was at least in the hunt for third with 25 points. I'm looking forward to getting a copy of this game, as it's a very nice reprint of the original title. While it doesn't have the elaborate gem chests of Diamant, it certainly won't be confused for one of those "cheap American reprints" that the 'Geek seems to think it will be. Nicely done, Sunriver Games.

Thanks for hosting, Mike. The next session will be the pre-Christmas fest at my home on the 19th, where we will consider doing a gift exchange!

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Die Macher Night at Chris's

Christ hosted a game day at his place on Saturday, with a session of Roads and Boats in the morning (with Wes, Michael, and Eric), and two games of Die Macher in the evening hours (with Ken, his son Brandon, Chris's son Jacob, Chuck, Mike, Hazmatt, and myself). The first four played on Chris's board, the last four on mine.

Of all of the players, only Chuck had actually played before, so I took a stab at explaining the overall arc of the game with his help to everyone at once. Theoretically, each segment has a relatively small number of rules, and the idea was that Chris could cover all of those as they progressed through the game. We all opted to play the shorter 5-turn version in the interest of time, which turned out to be a good idea. We all used the reprint edition of the game, which has it's plusses and minuses.

First, a word about the reprint. One of the big problems that our group had with the game (and the reason I refused to play) was ambiguity about whether or not you could reverse your party's position (going from pro to con) with a single card play. The new rules make no mention of any limitation in this regard, although there is a rule enforcing a more gradual change when it comes to the state and national mood. I found the rules to be extremely clear in most cases, although the exact process for determining who can be in a coalition is somewhat more difficult. We ended up playing that the first player can choose and/or force coalitions, moving around the table afterward. I'd like to see this clarified from an official source, but the Engish rules are otherwise quite clear on all points.

The big problem, however, is the position cards. Several of the icons used are very similar (nukes, industry, and terrorism), and the small icons on the popular opinion cards are very difficult to read. Against the light cream background, the containment tower on the nuke card becomes virtually invisible. Also, the use of up/down arrows vs check boxes (and the fact that the industry popular opinion and party platform cards don't even match), when all that is needed is a color, just adds to the confusion. This sort of thing is completely unacceptable in a reprint, and I'm considering making up my own cards as these are so difficult to parse on what is already a very busy board. Very poorly done, Valley Games.

Die Macher is a very sequence heavy game, and you have to be very very very very careful not to miss any segments. Which we did, almost immediately with serious consequences. In our case, we ended the first turn neglecting to get external money, which nearly killed both Mike and myself as we hadn't done well in the first election. We didn't catch the error until after the Shadow Cabinet phase of the second turn, which hurt me quite a bit. We ended up playing the cards after the Shadow Cabinet phase, but the damage was done to me trying to kill Matt and Chuck's stealing of that election with their coalition.

To make things worse, I'd bid for table position not realizing that I could be beat by a coalition, so there was more money wasted. In the third turn, I learned that you could have multiple coalitions, which came a little late in the game as well. I suspect that this game is very harsh to new players, as almost every decision you make ties in to a future decision or situation later on, and not having a thorough understanding of how everything fits together can produce quite a bit pain. I ended up being in strong position to win a couple of elections early, only to get beat because I didn't understand the coalition rules as well as I might have.

The capper was when I had the chance to change the popular opinion in the third election, and it was strongly suggested that I make a particular play that hurt me, but that also hurt Matt. When all was said and done, I ended up with 48 votes instead of 50, costing me 3 seats, which wouldn't have happened had I just left the opinion as it had been originally. The person suggesting the move had also missed the implications, but it's an object lesson as to how tightly built this game is. Clearly not a game for wimps!

That was the end of my whining for the game, fortunately. While I didn't do particularly well in the fourth election, I was well placed to finally win the fifth and final election, which also was for the most seats of any election in the game (36, which is relatively small compared to the 80 you can get in Berlin). I also did quite well in matching the National Opinion, but my population sucked and Matt ended up winning the game by a good 50 points over me. Chuck came in third 20 points behind me, with Mike trailing another 50 points behind him. A big part of Matt's success was adding 12 population early on, which gave him an extra $24,000 to work with over the course of the game (although most of us had bumped up $4 or $8 at start). He ended with well over 50 population, quite a large amount.

I really like this game, although it's clearly not the kind of game you pull out on a whim. It requires constant attention to not only what is going on in the various states, but also on the National Opinon board and what your neighbor's platforms are. Given that this element is the one component quality disaster in the game, the game is actually made more of a brain drain that it might otherwise have been. It's bad enough that Valley Games should seriously consider providing replacement cards for these two decks, they are that bad.

The game, however, rewards thinking ahead and managing a complex situation. There are a few luck elements - what cards you draw to adjust your platform (which has been improved from the original game), how well you roll when you take external money (or not) and decline to release opinion polls, and whether or not you get the opinion poll you are hoping for. However, the opinion poll comes under the heading of "you knew the job was dangerous when you took it" as is the external money mechanism. Of all of these luck factors, I could see the platform card draws as having the ability to sink a game without any ability for a player to recover, although it would have to be a pretty poor set of draws. A longer game would tend to average out the results from such pulls, and create more change over time to the national mood, so I suspect the short game is only really valuable if time is an issue or if you are playing a learning game (as we did).

Overall, I'm looking forward to another playing of this game, preferably soon to lock in the many (painful) lessons learned in my first game. Our playing time, including my initial 'splainin', took about 3.5 hours, and we had very few rules questions that couldn't be answered quickly (although I did have very scary moment when I thought that there might be *four* possible positions on an issue rather than just two, but it was just the bad components).

I've said it twice, I'll say it once more - Valley Games, you blew it big time on the Popular Opinion and Party Platform cards, and you should fix this problem. I know you are a small publisher, but these are critical components that have a huge effect on the game. It is far too easy for a player to confuse two of these symbols and make a game-ruining decision. Do the right thing and at least make replacement cards available at your cost. Otherwise, the game is a classic, so treat it with the respect it deserves.

Bulge - Second Impressions

I did an out of the box review on the new Axis and Allies title, Battle of the Bulge, last week, and got a chance to play this with Jesse a few days later. This was Jesse's first game, and I had him play the Germans so he could get a good sense of how the game plays as he'll probably be demo'ing it to customers at his store in the future. Jesse won on turn five when he took Liege, and in fact had several chances to beat me that turn. However, we felt that had I held out that the Allies would almost certainly have won, so we both came away feeling the game was close.

Some thoughts after getting in a second playing:

o This is going to be my favorite A&A *game* in the series. I still hold that the game does not do enough to try to tackle the difficult nut of encouraging the Germans to do what they were trying to do historically, and for that reason there may be times when I pull out Tigers in the Mist instead of this game. However, this may be the best introductory wargame out there, nothing else does such a great job of introducing basic concepts in such an appealing package.

o A closer look at the VP spaces on the board show that the cluster of towns in the north leading to Liege and the area around Bastogne are the critical spaces to prevent a German victory, just as they were historically (St. Vith is doomed, but may also help the Allies to hold out as long as possible). As such, we think that the Allies may have a better chance of winning by allowing German penetration after making these areas hedgehogs with strong defenses. ZOC prevents supply from reaching the panzers racing ahead, and the rules about stopping when entering uncontrolled towns prevent them from running amok in the Allies backfield. I may try this strategy out in a solo attempt in the near future. In other words, the Allies *force* the Bulge, which is historical. The lack of defensive terrain in the north may make this harder, but it's worth a shot.

o I still have issues with the counter mix, the difficulties of tracking movement, and some of the vaguaries of the ruleset. However, none of these affected our enjoyment of the game. This is one I definitely want to play again in the near future!

I wonder what Avalon Hill will do for it's next A&A game now that they've exhausted all of the "interesting" ETO battles involving Americans? I'd love to see a Guadalcanal game, which would allow the game to continue with the supply issue while tackling a subject that has been problematic for traditional wargame designers.

CenTu Session, 12/5/06

Wow, what a busy gaming week. Within a five day period, I got in something like 10 hours of gaming, which is a lot for me when I'm not at Sunriver.

First up was our regular Central Tuesday session, this week at Matt's. Seven of us showed up to do some quality gaming - Dave, Jim, Matt, Liz, Alex, Chuck, and myself.

Our first division saw Matt, Liz, Chuck, and me playing Around the World in 80 Days (80 Days), with Alex, Jim, and Dave playing a couple of games of San Juan. Alex apparently smacked the others around in both games.

In our game, Matt started out racing ahead in terms of position but lagging behind in terms of actual days travelled. Chuck, always Mr. Efficiency, began by going for the "last in" bonuses. Me, I tried to be as cheap as possible, within reason. In the end this strategy paid off, as I was the only person to beat 80 days, but just barely. Going into the last couple of turns I was short a rail card, and had set myself up as the start player, but was out of gold to draw extra cards if necessary. Unfortunately, no rail cards came up, and I was not only delayed one turn, but an extra day as Matt had gone in first (with a trip time of 105 days!). A Storm didn't help either, but I was able to sneak in just under the wire on the final turn for the win.

80 Days is becoming one of my favorite light four-player games - the various elements all go together to really evoke the theme, and the days vs position mechanism is simply genius. There's great tension, enough planning and strategy to make you at least partially the master of your own destiny, and even a couple of press your luck elements (which I always like). It's really a shame that the game was so poorly packaged, I think it would have gotten better sales, even at the same price point, in a Puerto Rico sized box, but I'm sure *someone* had a good reason to do box a compact game in an airplane hangar.

We all finished up about the same time, so we shuffled personnel. Chuck, Matt, and Dave played San Marco, which I'm starting to regret having sold a year ago, although I suspect the game is still available. Matt was the winner in that game.

Meanwhile, I taught, believe it or not, Samurai to Alex, Liz, and Jim. This game holds a special place in my heart, as it was the first Euro I really played right after my first mega-buy from Funagain back in the day when Funagain was worth buying from and every game that came out was novel. In fact, my opponent at the time was a 15 year old Alex, who had accompanied me to the store and was more than a bit concerned that my wife Mel might have a negative reaction to me coming home with 20 games.

Alex didn't really remember anything about the game (other than playing it), and Liz and Jim had never played, so I went over the rules, reminding people of various rules as we went. I even went so far as to make sub-optimal plays early to demonstrate specific moves you could make. We had a very strange piece placement early, with Buddhas clumped in the north. We also played with random tile draws at the start to allow everyone to learn how the various tiles worked.

I started out collecting paddies and buddhas, and initially this worked well. However, the four-player game plays hell with any strategy one may have, and this game was no exception. I set myself up rather nicely for at least a couple of buddhas in the north, only to see almost all of them get snatched up by others. At the end of the game, my 3 Samurai was nicely positioned, but never netted a piece before Liz ended the game. An ill-advised move, as it turned out, as neither she nor I had any majorities. In the end, Jim won the last tie-breaker by a single piece over Alex.

Perhaps the slowest game of Samurai I've ever played (90 minutes including 'splainin'), but worth it to teach this true classic.

Thanks for hosting, Matt!

Sunday, December 03, 2006

A&A: Battle of the Bulge - First Impressions

Picked this game up at Jesse's new Hobbytown store last week, and it was the first game of the bunch to get a tryout in solo play. Verdict is somewhat mixed, but overall positive.

First, components. Avalon Hill seems to manage to do both a great and a miserable job on components in every game they've done since they were Borged. In Vegas Showdown, it was the crappy player mats and the lack of a marker to track non-room oriented Fame. In Bulge, there are a few problems. First is the standard "divided box", which is completely useless as the dividers don't manage to reach the bottom of the box. Since many of the components are flat (chips, supply markers), these end up sliding around all over the place. Second is the color registration of the board, which I freely admit is supposed to look like it's snowy, but ends up making it difficult to see the individual hexes. Third is the poor figure mix, which is just crazy. There are far too many artillery units in every nationality (four for the Brits when they use exactly one), while there are arguably not enough infantry markers. The turns are color coded, so it is easy to lose track of which units come in on which turns if a turn is skipped on the card (there are numbers but no notation that indicates no reinforcements on an intermediate turn). Finally, the 5 point supply markers are difficult to distinguish from the 1 point markers, and there are so few in the game it wouldn't have taken much to make them a bit larger.

If you think I'm being harsh about the components right off, keep in mind that there's a very good argument that Avalon Hill games are *all* about the components. People play A&A because you have lots of little army men spread out around the board, not because it's a great game. I know there are a lot of fans, but I think that if you replaced all of those units with your standard wargame counters that it would be much less successful. With the resources of Hasbro behind them, there is simply no excuse to do this poorly. The pieces are nice, they all correspond to either US or German weapons (except the Brit aircraft, oddly, and there is no differentiation in the game between US/UK), and the board is, unusually for an A&A game, not overly crowded.

I bought this thinking that it would be quite a bit like the other A&A game I like in the series, D-Day. The "battle" games feel a lot more like they are actually trying to duplicate a historical struggle, unlike Europe or Pacific which feel more like they are loosely themed on WWII. Bulge definitely meets this criterion, but does it in a much different manner than D-Day. To start with, the game is hex-based rather than area-based like every other A&A game (OK, the collectible minis game is hex-based, but let's pretend it's related in name only). There are zones of control, for God's sake. If there was ever an "entry" game to try to bridge the gap between wargames and euros, this may be it.

As for the historical aspects of the conflict, this game does a pretty good job of simulating them. The road net through the Ardennes is critical, as is (gasp!) supply, and even exploitation by armor. Of all of the A&A games, I feel this one best captures the strengths and weaknesses of every arm of the military. Artillery is strongest (after bombers), but has the most limitations on movement. Armor can exploit breakthroughs, but it costs precious supply to do so. Infantry is critical for protecting the more powerful and/or vulnerable elements of a force, but are weak on the attack. Trucks can get your slow units and supplies up to the front, but it's important to use them well or risk losing them, sometimes to the other side. What's most surprising is that these elements are all incorporated in a fairly elegant way.

The sequence of play is very straightforward, but a bit reversed from the usual IGO/YUGO system common in wargames. First is the air phase, which is heavily abstracted - you have the same air units every turn, at least once the weather clears up on turn 5. Second is combat, which (aside from the first turn, which is all Germans) is done on a hex-by-hex basis with each side choosing which neighboring hexes to attack and spending supply to do it, flipping the supply token over to show which hex is attacking which. This is a very elegant mechanism, and forces the players to choose which attacks should take precedence. Since the defender gets no "return fire", sequencing can be important. Third is movement/reinforcement, which also requires supply, and is again done on a hex-by-hex basis that *almost* works. Movement is all Axis units first, so it can be tough for the Allies to bolster a position easily, although the Allies do get the benefit of responding. Finally, the front line is moved forward (and this is a useful element, it's not just there for people who can't remember which of the 10 front line hexes belong to who), new VP are totalled, and stacking is enforced.

Combat is a system I've never seen before, but it's a winner. I'll try to explain it verbally, but to be honest you won't get it until you have it demonstrated to you, and then you'll be amazed that that's all there is to it. The attacker rolls a number of dice based on the attacking units. There are no terrain benefits (rivers only affect movement, towns only affect forward projection of German force), so things are very simple - one die per infantry, two per tank, three per artillery. Artillery was a deciding factor in the battle, so this is one of the historically accurate elements of the game. Every 6 or lower is a hit, but it's not quite that simple. Once you've removed the non-hit dice, you then start assigning hits to the defending elements based on the numbers you did roll.

This is best explained with an example. Let's say that the defender has two infantry, one tank, one artillery, and a bunch of supply markers. In the order given above, dice are assigned to the various units based on the number showing on each die. In this example, let's say the attacker rolled six hits - 1, 3, 4, 4, 5, 6. The 1 is assigned to the first infantry, the three to the tank, the fours to the artillery, the five to supply, and the six wraps around to the first infantry unit. For all but trucks and supply, one hit requires a retreat, two eliminates the unit. As such, in this case, there are two hits on the first infantry, one on the tank, two on the artillery, and one to supply. The first infantry unit is eliminated, as is the artillery. The tank, with one hit, is forced to retreat, and one supply marker is eliminated. Again, the defenders don't respond, they must attack on their turn and expend supply to do so.

Since only sixes or less hit, there are other rules that take effect if there are more than six units in a hex, although trucks and supply, regardless of how many are in the space, will only get a single "slot" assignment. To make tracking this easy, there are six tracks that slide out from under the side of the board. When I was first looking at the game, this seemed like a crutch for the mechanism-challenged, but it really is an amazingly effective system. The result is that you can withstand even an overwhelming attack with some luck, but you want to have multiple units in the space to do so. Trying to do this as the Allies is a major challenge.

Movement is a bit more of a bugaboo. You enable a space for movement by expending supply, but it can be tricky to keep track of who has moved already. Trucks and tanks can use the road net to move as far as they'd like, but have to stay on the road (tanks may instead move one space not using the net, the two types can't be combined). Tanks can also "blitz" by spending an extra supply to get a second move. Zones of control are sticky, so this can be handy for penetrating a porous line. Trucks can pick up units and bring supply from off-board, although on-board units have to pay supply to be picked up (and trucks themselves don't require supply to move). The other problem is that the rules say that all on-board units move first, although it's pretty clear that you can use the trucks that aren't in ZOCs to bring on supply and units (although this isn't explicit in the rules).

The biggest problem is that the Allies can't bring on reinforcements behind the front line, meaning the battle has no real reason to form a bulge. In fact, it's to the German's benefit to press forward along the entire board rather than try to break out across the Meuse River, as was the historic goal. If there's a flaw in the game, this is it. While some of the Meuse cities have high VP amounts, they aren't that much higher than many of the other cities on the board (5 points vs 3 or 4), so why make a big push in the center with vulnerable flanks? Of course, it's an A&A title, so I may be hoping for more than I should, but given the general desire to fit the game to history, I find this a bit mystifying.

In the final phase, the front line is moved forward to mark German penetration. Empty hexes to the east are included, so long as they don't have cities (even a single supply unit will prevent control). While this may seem a bit specious, there's a good reason to even have a marked front line - the Allies can use supply in a space that Germans have advanced into for movement as long as they are adjacent to that hex. The same goes for trucks that have been captured, although they aren't allowed to move for either side. The front line also restricts which hexes Allied reinforcements can enter from, which is occasionally a factor. The Germans then get points for all of the hexes behind the line. Once they hit 24, they win.

So what works? The combat system, for one, makes for accurate but tough-to-predict results. The "I pick one attack, you pick one" element adds a lot of tension. The way supply is used is brilliant, and is perhaps the best element of the game (in fact, the box lid calls it a "battle of supply" among other things). Game play is brisk, and there is little reason to be fussy about most things (such as exactly what units to have in a space, so long as you have a couple of infantry and tanks the supply, trucks, and arty are relatively safe). Aircraft are appropriately abstracted, and are best used in their historical roles (interdiction, with some assault assistance for the Germans). My favorite missing mechanism from the "strategic" games - no economy, just set reinforcements.

What doesn't work? No motivation to actually form a Bulge, the lack of flanks off-board (most wargames on the subject at least require garrisoning forces on the edges of the board), no real motivation to concentrate attacks (three supply "depots" across the board seems to get it done for most purposes). Also, because the rules mention aircraft before combat, the writers assume players will skip this section when learning the game and don't explain combat fully. There are a few rules ambiguities, and a few non-ambiguities that get cleared up when you think about it a bit - can retreated units attack from a new hex? A: No, because they can't retreat into a zone of control. And, of course, some component issues.

All in all, Avalon Hill has made a good introductory wargame that introduces some critical elements used in more advanced designs. Unlike the D-Day game, however, the game isn't as successful in demonstrating what the Germans were actually trying to do.

One last nit: The box cover describes the battle as "one of the most brutal in WWII". Please. It may have been the most brutal the US was involved in in Western Europe (although some of the battles in Italy such as Anzio and Monte Cassino were probably more 'brutal" depending upon how you define the term, and Kasserine certainly wasn't fun for the US by anyone's definition). Without question, the entire war on the Eastern Front was more brutal, and the various island invasions in the Pacific were all "brutal". Even the Omaha beach landings were probably more "brutal" in a sense, although very short. Admittedly, the siege of Bastogne was 'brutal", but when the entire offensive lasted a little more than a week, it's hard to take this sort of thing seriously. American revisionism wins again - it is a sad fact that wargames that involve the US (ACW and WWII being at the top of the list) sell much much better than non-US involvement, even more than the Eastern Front and North Africa. Americans seem to think that our history is the only one that matters, and that is an abject failure of our educational system. Sigh.

Regardless, this is a title worth checking out if you don't mind a glaring historical shortcoming and want a good light wargame that can act as an introduction to more sophisticated titles.