Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Dr. Heimlich, You've Discovered A Manoeuvre!

Mike came over last night, apparently not having had enough gaming at the Gamestorm con over the weekend, and we tried out the recent GMT release Manoeuvre. A name which is determined to trip my spell check every chance it gets.

M (as it will now be called throughout the report, as if this was a Victorian novel where polite sensibility dictated that I refrain from actually using someone's name to protect the innocent) is a combat-themed game that pits various armies from the Napoleonic Era against each other. Whether it's a wargame or not is outside the realm of this report, but I'm pretty sure it could be argued either way. The publisher/designer have stated it is not a simulation, although there are definitely army-specific elements that make it more of a simulation than, say, Memoir '44.

I usually don't go into details of a game, but since this is a fairly recent title and has some unique elements, I'll discuss the basics. Each player takes the role of an army commander during a nameless battle in the early 19th Century. There are eight distinct armies represented in the game, from all of the combatants during the actual Napoleonic Wars to the United States (think the War of 1812) and the Ottoman Turks (who fought both the Brits and the Russians during that time period, and whose land bordered the Austrians). Each army consists of a deck of sixty smallish cards and eight combat units.

The game is played on a set of four of the 24 map sections, each of which is divided up into a 4x4 square grid. The four sections are placed via a method of your choice into a 2x2 square, resulting in an 8x8 grid that will change from game to game. Each square has various terrain, ranging from swamps and hills to fields and towns. Your goal as army commander is to either remove the majority of your opponent's units from play via combat, or to command more of his "side" of the map (those sections closest to your opponent) after both players have gone through their decks.

Each player deck has 40 cards that correspond to his various units, so five cards per unit (this may be just an average). These "unit" cards can be used for various types of combat depending upon the unit and the card, but all can be used for defense and to rebuild reduced units. The other 20 cards in each deck are "HQ" cards that are essentially action cards, allowing you to break various rules or give you additional capabilities. Each nation's deck has a different mix of HQ cards that give a good flavor of how that particular nation waged war - the Spanish, for example, have a lot of Guerilla cards that prevent the play of various HQ cards their opponents might play, and guerillas played a major role in the Peninsular War.

Finally, the units are either infantry or cavalry, the only differences being that cavalry is allowed to move two squares per turn instead of one, and they make a pursuit roll against units that retreat from them. Units are all double-sided with the only information on them being type (inf/cav), the unit name and standard to identify them with their cards, and a combat value that appears to range from 5 to 8 on the full strength side. The reduced side has a reduced combat strength, another way to differentiate army capabilities in an elegant way. For example, the Austrians might have a very strong cavalry unit (strength 8) that reduces down to a 4, compared to a similar Spanish infantry unit that reduces down to a 5.

The game play is very simple - you discard as many cards as you'd like, you draw up to five cards, you move one unit (mandatory, and sometimes this can create problems when you like where they all are), you conduct combat if you choose with a unit by playing one of it's corresponding cards, and then you have the opportunity to restore a unit to full strength or place a redoubt (improved defensive position) if you have the cards to do so. Combat is straightforward - you play a card from the unit that is attacking, which states a dice combination that you will roll and add to it's combat value. From this number, your opponent compares his defensive value, generated by his unit strength plus any terrain benefits. Depending upon how much better (or worse) the attacker does than the defender, one side may be required to retreat, reduce or eliminate it's unit, or both. The defender may also play unit cards to increase his defensive value, and the attacker may play a variety of cards to improve his strength, add dice to his roll, add supporting units to the attack, and so on.

The above combat is called "assault", and most units can perform it. If your unit card allows it, you may instead volley (which is a simple percentage die roll that either reduces a unit or nothing), bombard (which is like volley, but over range and these unit cards can't be used for assault, although they are strong defense cards). There is also an ambush card that allows you to attack any unit on the board regardless of position, although admittedly at a fairly low chance of success. These are most useful against reduced units that have been pulled back before they can be restored to full strength and are in positions that you can't assault via regular combat.

Restoring units to full strength requires either an HQ card that can perform that duty, including leaders, which are useful in many other ways as well, or a spare unit card. It is a bit difficult to eliminate a unit outright much of the time, largely because it either requires you to get a combat value that is 4x the defender value if the unit is full strength, or to manage to take combat to a reduced unit. As such, getting five units eliminated from one side or the other is a difficult task and requires a little skill or luck or both, and I suspect most games will end once both players run out of cards in their decks.

Mike and I played two games, the first the Ottomans (me) against the US (Mike). There's a likely contest. The Ottomans stress cavalry, having twice as much as any other army, and Committed Attacks (HQ cards that add dice but demand an attacker step loss). I'm not quite sure how, but Mike's US army got routed early and often, possibly because of Dean's Law (any random sequence of events will result in the worst possible outcome). I won this game in the end when I managed to surround his fifth loss with three units, which I was able to bring into combat in a concerted fashion via a leader and three unit cards. And a Committed Attack. He never had a chance.

We decided to try a second game, this time with Mike getting the Austrians and the slightly weaker Spanish going to me. Mike had the early success, pressing into my territory early and nearly wiping out one of my weaker infantry units with his strong cavalry. While I had trouble getting that unit back into fighting trim, I was able to add a redoubt to it's position (already in a city), and Mike either wasn't able or willing to go after it. However, he did knock out my strongest unit early, not to mention a weaker cavalry unit, both on my right flank, and it seemed that he might be on the road to a strong win.

The later portion of the game favored me, however, and I was not only able to push him back to his side of the board, but also to knock out three of his units to the two I had lost. My large number of Guerilla cards did a good job of keeping those units of his that were reduced in that state, and the Austrians tend to be a little more fragile when reduced. In the end, all Mike could do was mount an attack that would have resulted in both of us controlling a bit of each other's territory, and I won the tiebreaker regardless thanks to having eliminated more of his units, plus the Spanish are further down the quality scale and thus win ties with stronger armies anyway.

We did play one rule incorrectly (although we "discovered" many rules as we went, but nothing like you would with, say, FAB Bulge) - the Guerillas card speaks of Reinforcements, which we couldn't find listed in the rules, and the rule entry for the card said that it referred to playing extra unit cards during combat. However, a quick look at the Geek shows that this is a mistake, and Reinforcements refer to an element of the Restoration phase and reduced units, not combat. However, this was the only time such a card was played for this purpose, and it did not affect the outcome of the game as I ended up playing extra cards to no gain and Mike lost a Guerilla but also didn't have to reduce the unit I was attacking.

Of course, Dean's Law applied here as well, with Mike rolling particularly bad dice at game end. This is a constant complaint for him, and I have to say that he does seem to have less than good luck with the dice at times. On the other hand, it seemed to me he did not press into Spanish territory as it became clear that the game would end by nightfall rather than by attrition, so it could be that an opportunity was missed. These were learning games, however, so only time will tell.

The cards also tend to dictate your battle plan, similar to Combat Commander. However, in that title you have many cards that are shuffled repeatedly, and a Move order may apply to any unit or group of led units. In M, while you may always move a unit, it will have at most five opportunities to attack (barring reshuffle by the first player to run his deck out and supporting attacks). And that eliminates opportunities for restoration and defense. We tended to take our opening hands and keep them rather than rush through the deck, although I'm not sure that the latter strategy might be a better one, and may lead to much quicker games as a result. I tend to try to work with what I have rather than what I might have, so my play style was definitely based on the devil you know. It would be interesting to try out different strategies and see if one works better than another, though.

Based on these two games, here is my assessment of this title, given that it is intended to be a light war-themed game with historical elements:

Pros:

Plays quickly (about 75 minutes per game).
High replayability with eight armies and nearly infinite map layouts.
Easy to learn/teach.
Elegant mechanisms to bring historical army attributes to the game.
Dice luck is manageable to some extent, but not enough that every battle involves some tension.
Engaging game with good tension, hand and luck management, light historical flavor.

Cons:

Heavy luck factor compared to many war-themed games.
Card draw order dictates battle plan.
Army cards are small, although I can't imagine fitting 480 regular size cards in this box (or the price increase).
If you want historical battle recreation, not a game for you.
Map tiles are relatively thin, tend to bend and shift around during play (although this is an aesthetic issue only).

Most of my cons are component or expectation related, as you see, so this is a game I'd recommend provided you aren't one of those people who were either cranked that the Paths of Glory map included post-Great War Dutch coastline, or who really shouldn't be playing games that involve luck elements (like Mike). Really, man, you need to go see a doctor or something about that. At least try to figure out if it's contagious!

At any rate, this is a very interesting and entertaining game for two that falls in roughly the same category as Command and Colors, but without the extensive setup time and space requirements (and with, I believe, less of a luck factor). It would be a marvelous lunchtime game if you were playing quickly (and mining the deck for cards rather than using what we had), as it travels relatively small if you only bring a couple of armies along. Definitely a place for this one at WBC West as filler if not as a tournament game - you can play up to three or four games at a time with a single set if everyone shares dice or you have extras.

Finally, my hats off to Mike, quite literally, for his willingness not only to grow his hair (all of it, apparently) for charity, but to allow said hair to be put into cornrows as well. As a distraction tactic, it very nearly worked, both in Grizzly Adams and Bo Derek modes. Of course, Mike has always been easily bored with his hair in the past, so it's nice that he found a way to leverage his ennui into something like $1600 for charity. Nicely done.

1 comment:

Mike said...

> I'm not quite sure how, but Mike's US army got routed early and often

A combination of my poor dice rolls, your good dice rolls, and just never having the card in hand for the unit you attacked.

The first meant that you rarely had a unit needing to be recovered, so you could use unit cards for more attacks. The second meant I was in the reverse position, having to use unit cards for recovery. And the third, that I generally never had the right card when I need it.

> On the other hand, it seemed to me he did not press into Spanish territory as it became clear that the game would end by nightfall rather than by attrition, so it could be that an opportunity was missed.

Without a unit, Leader or Supply card in hand, pushing units into a position where they could be attacked without a chance of recovery seemed a bad plan. And any time I did play a Supply card you had a Guerrilla card in hand to negate it.

However, perhaps I should have just shut up shop in the early part of the game rather than kept pressing the attacks, but the system does appear to favor the attacker. Who knows. We need to play it more to figure out a good strategy.