Friday, July 11, 2008

Warriors of God - Initial Thoughts

If you're a wargamer, tell me if this happens to you: A new game magically appears on your doorstep (or jumps into your car when you drive by your FLGS), you punch, clip, and bag the counters, you read the rules, you set it up... and then you put it away and maybe - maybe - pull it out and look at it once or twice in the next five years. 

I have a lot of games like that.

It seems that if the game doesn't inspire anyone else in my group to play, it's not going to see much in the way of even solitaire table time. Part of the problem is that I don't seem to be able to split my personality as well as I once did, even now that I have dedicated gaming space where multiple games can be left set up and ready for play. I've been blessed with such a wealth of good opponents (on many levels) that the manufactured solitaire experience just doesn't do that much for me. Now, the solitaire experience is about learning a ruleset in preparation for face-to-face or online play rather than for the experience of just playing. 

I *knew* I shouldn't have gotten into MMORPGs. 

Recently, I got MMPs new International Gamers' Series title, Warriors of God through pre-order. Funny thing about preorders, at least for me. I rarely have the faintest idea of what the game will be like, as I tend to order almost anything that isn't American Civil War or Napoleonics. I do, however, applaud bringing games from other countries (although so far the I in IGS seems to stand for "Japan"), and I don't have any games on the Hundred Years War (although there's little in the way of designer notes or historical information other than what's in the actual game, and that's not much more than a list of leaders). 

So it was that I was surprised that this was a very low density and complexity game, albeit with what seemed like an awful lot of sequencing. Huge counters (1"!), a very nice and readable map, and rules that should have dialed back the background hues about six points. Adam Starkweather, bless his soul, writes rules like Richard Berg, full of cute asides that are funny once that show off how clever and smart he is. I'm sure he is clever and smart, I just don't see what place that sort of casual reference has in a set of rules. 

Once you get past a combat sequence that literally takes 25% of the rules to get through, however, and start to understand how the various subsystems all work together, there's a very intriguing game here. The battle system is actually very simple - you add up all of the combat units on a side, compare to the battle rating of the leading commander (based on rank), then roll a number of dice based on which of those two numbers is smaller. Sixes hit, unless your leader has a better Bravery rating than the other leader, in which case you can add the difference to every die. For example, a 3 bravery rating facing a 2 on the other side would hit on fives or sixes, while the 2 would just hit on sixes. There are some other elements in sieges and using longbow troops (what would Agincourt be without longbows?), but that's it. 

Even the rest of the turn, heavily sequenced, isn't that tough. Most of it has to do with raising troops, checking to see if your leaders have died yet, and springing your leaders from prison if they had been captured. Victory points are based on control of areas, which is non-trivial if you aren't in your home area - just having troops somewhere doesn't cut it. 

Throw in that a leader can die on any game turn, turning what looked like a very good bet into a lot of trouble, and there's a game here that has a lot of chaos to manage. Which, I suppose, is pretty darned true to the period. 

I've been playing the Lion in Winter scenario, which is the same length of time and the same rules but just a different set of leaders, and I'm really enjoying it. Part of that is the chaos of never knowing who is going to deploy where until you know who has died of an icky venereal disease or stubbed their toe and got blood poisoning. That makes for a very dynamic game that some in my gaming group would call "dice fest" and "broken", but I consider it to make the solitaire experience very good and a challenge for the players in a ftf game to call "chaos management". 

The really critical thing I've found is area control. It's hard to take control of an area that your leader doesn't call home (there are shield and flag heralds on all counters and all spaces - if they match, you more or less automatically take control of it if you're there at the right phase). To remove a control marker during movement, you need to have more leaders in the area than your opponent, and the marker counts as a leader in that case. Removal in the Control phase is a little easier, although if you have mercs in your force or if the area isn't your home area it's at best a 50-50 proposition, and that's rare. However, most of your VP come from area control, you can only reposition troops outside of movement (which is important because they are only raised in areas you control as well) by moving them through controlled areas. Control, much more than active force, is huge in this game, and like War at Sea, tends to snowball - you don't compute VP anew from turn to turn, it's added on to what your current position is. 

The game moves right along. There are some critical decision points, mostly where and when to move your armies and how to get the maximum use out of the troops you raise, as well as where to place your leaders, but it's a very low number. I'd compare the decision points with those in Hannibal, perhaps even a little less so. What I find particularly interesting is how the chaos can change the board situation militarily, but might take a few turns to turn around from a VP production standpoint. I've had turns where not a single leader croaked, and other turns where the board was suddenly nearly vacant. Both sides will add three leaders per turn, so you're never completely screwed, and control of an area will prevent your opponent from sliding in and stealing combat units (a common occurrence when you first learn the game, and another reason why area control is so critical to success). Still, if you're the kind of person who is under the mistaken impression that this is the sort of game where you might as well roll a die and see who won, it's not a game for you. 

I've only gotten half way into the LiW scenario so far, but that was only about an hour to do so after an abortive learning pass, and I'd imagine that you could get through a full game in two hours without too much trouble once you were familiar with the system and the subtleties. In fact, I consider this to be a light enough game that I'm hoping to get it on the table as an evening game at WBC West in another month or so. 

One last item that I find particular interesting: Combat can go on for multiple rounds, and indeed if you have a couple of lightly reinforced leaders and each of you are rolling two or three dice at matched Bravery, it can take a while to attrit one force or the other. However, there's a very interesting mechanism that takes care of this to some extent and discourages the modern version of Kingmaker's old "Scrope attack". When you move into an uncontested area with enemy units, you become the aggressor and get an appropriate marker. If, as aggressor, you are unable to come up with a single hit in three rounds, your opponent can force you to retreat in disgrace, disallowing you from taking control of an area with that leader in the later part of the turn, and they get a free shot at you. It's optional, so if they have an overwhelming force they can choose to instead keep taking shots at you, but in general you are encouraged to go in with the big boys if area control is on your mind. 

While it's not going to be a game for everyone, this is not only a good gateway game for Euro players but also a pretty good short game for grognards as well. The choices between using your leaders for combat vs area control, and the risky aspect of taking control outside of very limited circumstances, make for some interesting strategic decisions. I also like that you basically get two games for the price of one (plus, of course, Jeanne d'Arc with her own special rule, not to mention Robin Hood who shows up in Lion). 

Now if we could just get Adam to tone down the rules and make a few cleaner component choices. Dude, hire a technical writer to edit. Lord knows Devil's Cauldron would have been a much better game had you done so. Otherwise, this is a very strong series and I thank Adam for his work in getting these games out to the West.


Eric said...

Now if we could just get Adam to tone down the rules and make a few cleaner component choices. Dude, hire a technical writer to edit. Lord knows Devil's Cauldron would have been a much better game had you done so. Otherwise, this is a very strong series and I thank Adam for his work in getting these games out to the West.

If you recall the comment exchange in my Two Sides post where I rip into the Devil's Cauldron rulebook, the guy who wrote TDC's rulebook told me I should avoid Warriors of God as he wrote that one too.

So, looks like he was right. I've received my copy and it's been opened, but I haven't even tried to read the rules yet.

Dug said...

On the plus side, the rules are perfectly usable, just sprinkled with lots of non-essential comments. The combat section is actually extremely sequential and pretty much lays out every subcase you could expect to see, it's just a brute force approach and as for learning the game it actually works quite well. On the other hand, were I teaching the game I would leave about 60% of it out until it was needed - how you run away, what happens to leaders, what you do in a siege, why longbows are really really good.

The other problem I had was having a graphically busy and prominent background on the rules. I don't feel like I need white paper with black text, but WoG's rules are just this close to being difficult to read because of those choices.

There's also the fact that the rules constantly refer to the four units of each independent mercenary group, when there are only two in the game. Making matters worse, they shipped with extra counter sheets that would lead one to believe that they did this to give people the extra mercs, but it's solely for the standard combat units (one sheet has all of the knights, longbowmen, gunners, and mercs the game needs).

Anyway, I guess my point is that the rules are pretty complete and pretty clear, just obscured by the usual Starkweather clouds. I do bust his chops for being cute, but I'm glad he's bringing these games over to the US from Japan. I prefer a very clean rules style, which is a personal preference, but also because we're talking about defining a system and there's really no place for cuteness in a rule.

On the other hand, I'm going through the Panzer Grenadier third ed ruleset, and there's 16 pages that could easily have been boiled down into 10. They must repeat some of the rules in that thing six or seven times. That's a much bigger sin, in my book.State the rule once, reference it repeatedly.