Sunday, April 08, 2007

Italia, or How To Watch Red Run Roughshod

Mike, Chuck, and myself got together on Saturday to try out Phalanx's Italia, the most recent game based on the Britannia system published so long ago. Each player takes on the role of a set of nations vying for supremacy (or survival) on the Italian peninsula and environs, either during the time of the Rise of the Roman Republic, or after the fall of the Western Empire in the 6th century AD. The former game is for three players, and so that is what we decided to play. Mike took the Red faction, consisting of the Romans and the Greeks, Chuck the Yellow which had the Celts (Gauls), Samnites, Epirotes, and Numideans, while I was Blue and the Carthaginians, Etruscans, and Illyrians. Our game started around 2pm after a little rules discussion (Italia has some definite changes from earlier incarnations of the system), and we stopped after turn 7, three turns early, around 7pm. I suspect we could have finished in about two hours, as the final turn features a lot of campaign moves that add considerable time to the game turn.

Mike's Greeks got off to a very strong start against my Carthaginians, as I was unable to succeed in sinking more than one Greek ship the entire game with the Carthaginian navy. In fact, aside from taking back Tripolitanea and one successful invasion against Agothacles in Lilybaeum, the only thing Carthage really succeeded at was Hannibal's run down Italy in turn 6. As such, the Greeks were able to score tons of points early on. Combined with the point-generating machine that is Rome in the later game, it was clear by turn 7 that Mike would win handily. The consensus was that the game is horribly unbalanced in favor of the Red faction in the Italia I scenario, and I have to say that I believe that Rome does indeed have a strong edge.

However, I will (in my own multiple-personality disorderly way) make a few rebellious noises in favor of the game. First off, this was a first playing of the game for all three of us, although I'd mucked through a couple of turns solitaire some months ago. The rules, in typical Phalanx style, are a bloody mess, and the player aids are anything but. As such, we spent some time trying to auger how things were supposed to work and made various mistakes as we went. A big one, and one that I'm not sure would have made a huge difference or not, was the ability to block reaction moves through spending additional gold. The Carthaginians could certainly have used this during Hannibal's run, as they had four or five gold in the bank at the end of the campaign, and I suspect it would have helped the Epirotes as well.

Of course, I don't believe that either Yellow or Blue played their positions optimally, while I think it is difficult for Red *not* to play optimally. Nothing against Mike, it was just that the game was rigged toward him from the start. Also, it is critical for the Greeks to get a major slapdown early in the game, hard to do if your dice run as cold as mine did for pretty much the entire game. Mike always complains about his dice, but mine were really atrocious, especially for the Carthaginians. As such, where the fight should have been taken to the Romans, it was spent much of the time trying to root out the Greeks in the south. I counted something like 25 points that the Greeks were essentially handed early in the game because of the vagaries of the dice.

Not that this would have made a difference directly, but I think there is a problem inherent in the game system itself that expects dice to average out to achieve a close-to-historical result on a constant basis, and when the game starts to wobble it wobbles badly. As an example, I will cite one of the first games I played with Matt G and Mike, all those years ago, of Britannia. Rome did not do well early, and as a result there was no strong force to resist the Saxons and they dominated the game so thoroughly as to make it as unbalanced as this game was.

A quick check of the Geek shows that at least a few people believe that Italia I is strongly weighted toward the Romans, and while this was indeed the historical result, you would think that the point system would balance this out to some extent. In the end, however, how do you balance points where the winner took everything? Answer - You can't. There is, however, a dissenting view that tells how Yellow can win the game over Rome, and indeed Chuck was about halfway successful in this particular strategy. The problem was, again, that the Samnites didn't go after the Greeks enough, and as such they provided the Romans enough points (and cover) that there was no prayer of beating them.

I'm hoping that Italia II (the post-Western Empire era) doesn't have the same problems as Italia I, but as I say I think the whole game concept is flawed. These titles don't have enough of a story/experiential component (that really requires a more personal scale, such as Combat Commander or Arkham Horror) to succeed on that level, so they almost end up being better as a solitaire time-waster than as a six-hour historical game. As Chuck said, "If I'm going to spend 8-9 hours playing a game based on this time period, we might as well play Sword of Rome." And he's absolutely right.

I suppose I will make an attempt to get Italia II on the table, if for no other reason than I don't really have any other game on that particular period and it's an admittedly weak part of my historical knowledge. However, one thing that I will have to do is create some usable player aids for this game. This is almost certainly my last Phalanx purchase, and one that would have gone on the sale pile almost immediately were it not for the support of the designer independent of the publisher. For a company that puts so much stock in the appearance of a game, you would think that ten minutes of focused thought would demonstrate that little things like a stacking reference, separate attacker/defender drm charts, and a reaction move recap on player aids that had more unused space than Wyoming would have made for a much more pleasant player experience at virtually no additional cost. Blennemann and his crew are examples of the worst kind of publisher - no concern for the end user once they've purchased the game, and certainly no time for anyone who doesn't speak Dutch. I say this from personal experience, as they respond very promptly to the Dutch member of our group, but pointedly ignore the twenty or so e-mails I've sent asking for clarification of a simple question about their Revolution title. They have a terrible rep in the industry, and I recommend you buy their titles only if it's a game you really want, and I mean *really* want.

Still, Italia isn't in and of itself a bad game, just based on a flawed concept made worse by dull developers. I will almost certainly attempt to try the Yellow strategy against Red solitaire to see if this is actually a functioning game, as it is the only three-player Britannia-style game out there (almost all are made for four players with various unsuccessful kludges for three), and I definitely will try the Italia II game out as well. So, while Chuck and Mike might take the hemlock before playing this again, I'm still willing to give it another shot.

Of course, I actually put money into it, so there you go...

1 comment:

Mike said...

I'd give it another go, but only the one. There are enough interesting additions over Britannia to make it attractive.

Yes, the Greeks did well, especially the fleets (spectacularly might be the appropriate word), but I feel the Romans did below average on their dice. OK, not near as badly as the Carthaginians (or the initial Celt invasion), but this just means that they could have been even further out in front.

I agree that it was easier to play the Reds. Fewer real choices - where are the points? - go pound on someone to get them.

With bidding for Red, I think this could be a very competitive game, although whether it's worth the time investment is still dubious. I still think it would be about 5+ hours, and I'm not sure there's enough game there for that amount of time.