Thursday, February 01, 2007

Italia - First Impressions

I had a chance to pull out my new copy of Phalanx’s new release, Italia. For those of you who have played any of this game’s ancestors (Britannia, Maharaja, Hispania, and Chariot Lords, with perhaps a few others I’m not familiar with), the basic system will be very familiar, but there is a lot more in this box than just a Britannia variant.

I’ve purchased several Phalanx games over the past few years, but in almost every case I’ve been hugely disappointed. While they have excellent quality components, the rules are almost always full of holes and often the game itself is such a mess that I have to wonder how they define “development”. The list of magnificent failures includes designs by some high-end designers: Tresham, Raicer, Berg, Knizia. In every case, the game has some basic failure of fun, whether it’s Revolution’s rules vagueness, the wacky First World War sudden death victory condition (which Ted Raicer didn’t put in his design), or the utter mess that was Nero. And I never did understand the rules in Alexander the Great. As such, I’d said I would not buy another Phalanx release. Then they put out Italia.

Based on various threads on the ‘Geek, it is clear that there are continuing rules problems. One very large issue is what constitutes an “area”. In one portion of the rules, an area is defined as one of the various land areas, but then sections of the naval rules use the term when talking about sea areas. The problem comes up when you look at nation income, placement of reinforcements, submission, just about everywhere that the term isn’t explicitly used. Considering the length of the rules, this is a bit surprising. It is also surprising considering that this is an evolution of a design that has been around for a while (although both the AH releases of Brit and Maha had confusing rules (raiding in Brit comes to mind, factories in Maha), and Chariot Lords had victory point conditions that are phrased in cute terms - “2 VP for ridding the Land of the Heathen (Hittites)” - huh?!?). Italia’s rules, such as they are, don’t have any confusing areas per se, just not sufficiently defined.

Fortunately, unlike Phalanx who ignored plea after plea from me to clarify a simple rule in Revolution (but immediately responded to George’s questions on Alex, if obliquely, when he phrased them in his native Dutch), the designer has spent a lot of time on the ‘Geek clarifying the rules, and I’m hoping for a definitive FAQ in the coming weeks. As long as gamers have access to a correct ruleset, I’ll be happy.

Of course, the components are very nice. Since Fantasy Flight recently republished Britannia and did a very nice job of it (if with their usual Sidebar Hell ruleset), the bar was set high. Italia has very nice components, comparable with their other releases. Rather than using round coins for vp, as the FFG Brit does, there are scoring pads, and not just little teeny ones. There are two player aids, which are moderately helpful if perhaps a bit misguided. For example, one side of one sheet has two small tables that would fit in less than a quarter of the sheet, while another has information on units in a confusing format when a tabular presentation would have been much more useful. More Phalanx Reality Distortion Field, I guess.

More consistent is the very good set of Nation cards. While not as graphically pleasing as the FFG Brit cards, they are packed with pretty much all of the information you need to run each nation. Unfortunately, no one else knows what it is your nations want to do for points, but this is nothing new for the pedigree. Also, the cards are reasonably sized, although most of them are double-sided so you can’t put your un-deployed units on them. Also, the type is pretty small. In some cases, the list of victory points begins on one side of the card and continues on the other, with no (cont.) note to let you know it keeps going. For the Romans, they get three cards, one for a different range of turns to keep track of different VP points, leaders, campaigns, etc. A very smart fix rather than trying to squeeze too much info on larger cards.

The board seems to be the usual nice quad-fold map of Italy and North Africa, which is very clear and includes a few nice icons to remind you that you can’t build cities in a particular area or can’t move between areas that meet at only a vertex. However, the sea area names are fairly difficult to read, but since they are only important a few times a game, this is a forgivable sin.

Also included in the box is a set of zip-lock bags for counters. That’s great, but these are huge, and there are about enough to put all of the counters for a given color (rather than for each nation, resulting in a long sorting period prior to the game). Put in more and smaller bags, or leave them out entirely. Of course, I have lots of little baggies, so this comes out with me gaining a bunch of bigger bags, but when this sort of thing contributes to the price it’s annoying.

My final gripe is that the score-pads and player aids are an odd size. They are too long to fit width-wise in the box, which would have made a lot of sense. I guess that the need to publish A4 size sheets for cost savings was the overriding factor. I will admit that there is a lot more space on the scoring pads than were in the AH Brit/Maha game, but it seems strange that they would put thick pads in rather than simply include a couple of sheets to get started with, then provide copies in PDF format on the website. Clearly, the nice folks at Phalanx enjoy taking coffee breaks at the wonderful Dutch coffeeshops - you know, the ones with Sinsemillia on the menu?

Wah, wah, wah. This is the sort of half-well-done job I’ve come to expect from Phalanx. At least they didn’t put in their first-thing-I-throw-out plastic counter insert, just a nice recyclable insert that holds the nation cards and dice. Insert bong noises here.

Fortunately, all of these things are fairly unimportant compared to the game itself, and while I can’t speak for the entire game, there are a lot of good things to point to. I did play through two turns of the three-player “Italia I” game to get the sense of some of the mechanisms new to the game, and they do add a lot of variation to what can be a bit of a tired formula. What’s that, you say? What’s this “Italia I” stuff? And here is where things get good. You see, you don’t get one game in this box, you get two. The two games share rules (with a few exceptions) and the board, but have completely different counters, different nation cards, and cover different time periods. The first game is three-player, and covers the rise of Rome up through the Civil Wars at the beginning of the Empire (and includes what looks like a very cool rule that lets all players get into the action, each taking a faction). The second game runs from the collapse of the Western Empire through the various barbarian invasions and into the Burgundians, Franks, and Byzantine attempts to re-conquer the Western Roman lands. It plays with four players, and looks to have a much different feel.

Which is good, because the game lists at about $70. Nice to get two games for that price.

The rules additions are very interesting. On the one hand, rather than adding units because of “population”, now you have “income”. You get money per area controlled (land areas, it turns out), plus your city count (a new take on the Roman Forts from Brit). If you’ve submitted, you get half and the other half goes to your patron state. Plus, you can pillage or raid cities just to get money, which can be very handy. What is dumb dumb dumb is that the money track goes to 5, but you can have a whole lot more income than that, and the nation money track markers “+5” side is hard to see across the table. Fortunately, using poker chips with the money track markers on top to keep track of who has what funds is a perfectly good fix (as is keeping track of VP).

And money is important, not just for buying units, of which there are now several types. Some require extra hits to kill (Knights, Consular Legions), and some are just better (Elephants). There are also fleets so you can fight out the First Punic War. Cities don’t act as extra units, but do give the defender a bonus.

Which brings me to combat, which is much clearer than in earlier iterations. Rather than remembering if cavalry can move two or three spaces, and what you have to roll to hit with the Romans, unless you’re in marsh, now all you do is look at the number on the counter, add in a few simple DRMs, and off you go. Plus, the combat is based on 10-sided dice now rather than six, which I think is always an improvement as you can generate a wider range of probability.

There are still major invasions, raids (which are much easier to understand and resolve), and leaders, but also a new idea called a “campaign”. This is possibly the coolest part of the new game, which essentially puts mini games into the larger scope, and allows events like Hannibal’s invasion of Italy to work very effectively. During a campaign turn, you get a turn just like normal, then you can pay for extra moves with your money, one gold per move. The trick is that a) you can only move units that are stacked with the campaigning leader, although you can pick up and drop off units as you like, and b) other players get to react to your moves in limited ways (join in the battle, or run away to another area).

In the shortened game I played, this is how the Romans get kick-started. They begin the first turn in the Roma space, but are really only set up to go after the Celtic leader to get points for the turn. In the second turn, they get a leader and a ton of units, and then get the chance to try to run the Celts, Etruscans, and Samnites into submission, which is all they get points for in that turn. All players get a chance to be the campaigning nation at some point, which is good fun, although I suspect the Romans will get the lion’s share.

Interestingly, the player who gets the Romans only gets them and the Greeks (which gives them something to do the first few turns), then the Greeks become Romans after a while and that’s all that player does. Unlike Brit, where the Roman player has pretty much done all of the interesting things he’s going to do within the first quarter of the game, Italia has the Roman slowly gradually increasing in power over the course of the game, which makes for a nicer arc for that player. And, so no one feels left out, the big civil war at the end of the game looks to be a nice capper for the game arc.

I really don’t have any comments on the later, four player game. I have heard that both games take much longer than Brit, which typically plays in 3-5 hours depending upon experience level. I’m hearing more like 8 for Italia. On the plus side, the game does support three or four players (which Brit did in a very compromised way, both in components and in fun factor), and I can see this being a very playable VASSAL game - pbem would be difficult and very slow during campaigns because of the reaction moves, but via Java would work well.

I’m not sure this will see table time before WBC West in August, unless I solitaire the game - even at the Sunriver retreats an 8 hour game is asking a lot. Still, I can definitely see playing via VASSAL over a few weeks, and if a module comes out soon I may ask if anyone is up for a game in that mode.

So, in a nutshell, Italia looks to be a tarnished gem, but only in the most cosmetic of ways. The designer is compensating for Phalanx’s poor support, the component issues can be resolved with simple workarounds, and the gameplay looks extremely promising. Nice to have a new title in this game family available to us, even if it is a little on the long side.

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