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.

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