Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Wargame Room, Take 2

I've gotten in a second game of We the People at Wargame Room (WGR), and it went much smoother. For one thing, I was definitely doing better at managing my time - when you know what to expect and have the rules down, things go swimmingly. Our game went to 1780 (a bit more than halfway in), and I was at 33 minutes while my opponent (who hadn't played for a bit, much like me in my first game, and was also remembering the interface) was at 45. I, however, had taken pity on him and offered to extend the game for him by 15 minutes if he wanted. He accepted, but it didn't help him. He, like the guy I played in my first game, forgot the cardinal rule of playing the Americans - protect Washington (the general, not the city - there was no city at that time, of course). I will take that chance every time it is offered, even if I feel I've got little chance of winning it. 

This game has grown on me quite a bit, despite the obvious problems it has. As the British, I had all three of the "must play" cards that benefit the Americans - French entry, European War, and the Declaration. Two on the same turn, although fortunately the turn that I won so they never saw play. While there is a certain amount of historical accuracy in how the cards can turn out, it is still mildly galling that you can lose this game through absolutely no fault of your own if you get a hand of discards and other crap while your opponent gets a handful of minor and major campaigns and 3 ops cards (and North's Govt Collapses for that year). 

The rules organization is a bit of a mess, being written for use by 10 year olds who picked up the game at the Smithsonian while on spring break. Excellent example - try to find out what happens when the Continental Congress is dispersed. Hint: it's buried in a paragraph on a related subject and is not included in the full-page index on the back. No wonder I was at 68 minutes in my first game if this was the sort of thing I had to parse. 

In the end, though, the game is pretty short for a wargame, some of the more complicated concepts (such as having a choice of what to do with every card in the game in every other CDG - a concept my otherwise brilliant brother couldn't grasp at all, and he's played the old D-Day game about a thousand times) are missing and thus it's an excellent game to teach newbs, and there just aren't that many good strategic games on the topic (do you know anyone who has played the campaign game of 1776 to completion? Neither do I. Now someone will pipe up). 

Amazingly, another game bug, though. This one could have had serious implications for our game, it was just a matter of fortune that it didn't - During the Political Isolation phase, you have to have a CU or uncontrolled space (or leader or Continental Congress, if you're the US, or a port if you're the Brits) that your PC markers can trace to (although the rules aren't clear if you can trace into a space controlled by the other player, since CUs on their own can't flip PCs). The US player removes their PCs first, which is a huge advantage for the Brits. In our game, I had cut off a couple of American PCs in North Carolina, but on the final card play my opponent snuck around and cut off the seven PCs that were cutting him off. Then he put the dispersed Continental Congress on the spaces with his two PCs, saving them from isolation and dooming mine. 

A brilliant play, although at first it looked to me to be a wasted effort because I hadn't notice the CC played. However, all of our PCs were removed in the Isolation Phase, which wouldn't have been the case under any condition (it would have been him or me). I felt particularly stupid because I could have easily isolated a different American PC that would have saved my set, and I should have left a CU sitting back there anyway. Not that it mattered in the end, but only because he made a dumber play than I did. 

This is two bugs in two games, ones that you would expect would have been caught by now. Since the WGR games enforce the rules (the end of the turn goes by *real* fast), and the tournament says that in the case of a bug you simply have to live with it, it's a little annoying to discover them. Bruce says he'll get fixed versions of the game out quickly, and I appreciate that "quickly" may mean in a couple of weeks, but it's a little nerve-wracking to consider playing again when you know the game may not work like you expect it to.

Chuck and I are signed up for the Twilight Struggle tournament, which began yesterday. We intend to play on Thursday night to get a sense for the interface and to see if we can act as server (something I haven't tried to do yet). Plus, I need to make sure I can actually play the game. Unfortunately, we aren't playing each other (there are over 40 players in this tournament, compared to 12 in WtP) officially, and I expect to get more games in not long after. I can hardly wait to find what bugs are in that version of the game. 

One thing I wasn't expecting was how juiced you get playing on the clock. I can see why people do it, there's definitely an adrenal rush when you realize that the game isn't behaving like you expect it to and you have to push through so you can look it up on your opponent's time. TS has the same time constraints that WtP has - one hour per player per game. Paths of Glory and Barbarossa to Berlin have time limits of 5 hours total. I may not play those games, at least not without really knowing how the game works. Of course, you can ignore the timers in a casual game, and in the tournament you can even ask your opponent if they're willing to extend the time limits (there are notifications that you are getting close to time and that you've exceeded it, but you can ignore them). The spirit of the tournament, however, is such that you are expected to adhere to the time limit unless there is an overriding concern - potential interruptions, learning the game, learning the interface, etc. I will give first time players the benefit of some extra time, but not once they've gotten a game under their belts. This will come back to haunt me the first time I play the Americans, that's for sure.

I may sound as if I'm ungrateful for the work Bruce Wigdor has put into the engine and website, and I don't mean to be. In fact, I've signed up for a year membership ($50, voluntary unless you want some say in what game gets authored next) because I want to support his efforts and because I think this site is an excellent way to play games online. While the system isn't as modular as VASSAL, it does let you play the game without worrying if your opponent knows the rules well enough to not cheat inadvertently, which I find I like quite a bit. So, thanks to Bruce for his hard work and devotion to the hobby, and I'll keep you updated on how the tournaments are going. In about a year we'll know who won.

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