Wednesday, August 20, 2008

WBC West Report #3 - Tuesday Evening through Wednesday Afternoon

Funny story - Dave always brings this early Fantasy Flight game called Thunder's Edge to every Sunriver event hoping that someone will ask to play it but always packing it back into his suitcase unplayed. This year, when I'd suggested Titan as a potential evening game for WBC West, Dave replied that it had two problems (his exact quotes below):
  • Player Elimination (unlike Thunder's Edge), and
  • Excessive Downtime (unlike Thunder's Edge).
The rest of us took the opportunity to reply to many statements with the qualifier "(unlike Thunder's Edge)" and hilarity ensued, especially if someone missed a particularly good opportunity, such as "I am so looking forward to WBC West (unlike Thunder's Edge)."

Last night, Chuck and his wife Jodi went out for dinner and a movie (Tropical Thunder, no less, so there was certainly a severe weather-related theme going), so I suggested that perhaps we just put a bullet in the head of this particular long-running joke and play the damned game. I'd actually played some years ago, but to be very honest I kept being amazed by how little I recalled anything other than the box cover, and even then. 

Bad Idea.

Oh, I won the game. However, because of the way the board is set up, I was able to turtle in one corner, which let me control three Population Centers, so all I needed to do to win the game was take the center city and get an auto-victory. Which I came within a single 5 or 6 on a die of doing. Which I almost certainly would have gotten had I trusted my gut and check the rules closely to see why it was that on a bad weather turn the artillery couldn't fire (this was a poorly written expansion set rule that said that spaceships couldn't support ground troops). Given that I was going to roll eight dice, the chances of getting a 5 or 6 on one of them was, oh, pretty good.

Instead, I got pushed back to my part of the board, where I sat for the next three hours doing absolutely nothing of any interest or importance other than defending from other players attacking me (and failing). And then I won anyway. Frankly, my only interest at that point was to get the game over with. And had been since about the point where I realized that we'd gotten the rule wrong. 

Any game where I can literally do *nothing* other than build units for four hours and still win has some serious design flaws. There's an entire Consul phase where you trade cards that give you VP and determine who gets to go first, but it's completely tacked on and I ended up with a handful of action cards that were useless - I played six of 14 cards over the course of the game. 

Perhaps the problem is that the game is early FFG, which tended to favor flimsy components and poor rulesets. The designer is Christian Peterson, who does decent stuff, but this game was just a mess. See also Twilight Imperium from the same period, which went through three different editions before they stuck with something. The text on the cards was nearly impossible to read because it was so small, the counters were the same (and with graphics so tiny that you couldn't tell them apart either). Mike's purple counters on the map looked like Barney throwup. 

However, I think the real issue is that while I like wargames, I'm less enthusiastic about war-themed multiplayer strategy games. Not having a historical basis doesn't help, at least for me. Without a *reason* for the game to contain certain types of chrome, the whole thing feels like a horrendously overproduced euro, where the great thing about euros is their elegance (simplicity in mechanisms). I feel exactly the same way about Axis and Allies in it's original form - I got rid of that game and the Europe and Pacific variants years ago. 

What really surprised me is how disgusted I got with the game and how unsuccessfully I was able to hide my displeasure. I spent most of the game wanting to leave the table and never come back. Usually I try to be a good host and give the game the benefit of the doubt, but this time I simply ran out of interest and patience so quickly I was a little taken aback. Perhaps it was because I was handed the win pretty much from the start by the semi-random starting process, and also because there wasn't an interesting decision in the game for me other than to run for the auto-victory. After that, my dogs could have won the game. 

Ken liked the game as we got going, and mentioned several times that I was being too harsh. I suppose from his perspective this is true - he was starting to grok the system pretty well toward the end. But then, he had to figure out tactics because he had little in the way of resources and cities and so had to do things in order to be competitive. He had a few things go well, other things not so much. I'm glad someone enjoyed it, because Mike and I were ready to start tossing lit matches at the board in the hope that something would go up in a big way. 

At least it made War of the Ring look interesting (which, to be fair, is an interesting game when played by people who understand the priorities, if a little overdone). 

After not nearly enough sleep, Mike decided in the morning to take a wee break, so the four of us pulled out Wellington. This is the first of the follow on games to Napoleonic Wars, and I really enjoy it. However, you have to go in understanding that you play the role of a theater commander who doesn't have a lot of say in how things go from a Grand Strategic standpoint. As such, things happen during the game that you have no say in, such as the Germans seeking peace with Napoleon and freeing up units for the Spanish front, or conversely the disaster in Russia. 

The game has complicated victory conditions, as you'd imagine, but the key for the French is to hang onto Madrid for as long as possible. If they can do this and keep six keys in Spain total they have a chance to win the game at the end of every turn. On the other hand, there is also a 1 in 6 chance every year that peace will break out and the war will end. This is all very historic, but feels a bit chaotic in a wargame. Normally it adds tension when people know it's coming, as you need to have all of your ducks in a row at the end of every turn.

Dave took the Spanish forces, Ken was Wellington, I was Soult and the French Army of the South, while Chuck took the north. Chuck had good success holding off several attacks by Wellington, mostly thanks to useful battle cards. Meanwhile, I brought Soult up from the south to shield Madrid and had to give up four keys in that part of the board, which brought the Spanish total way up, and at the end of the first turn I was far in last place while the Spanish were now up with the British and French-Nord key totals. Based on the start position for the 1813 scenario, we were not far off from the historical result. 

At turn end, we needed a 6 to conquer Spain through holding Madrid and enough keys to demoralize the Spanish. Unfortunately, Chuck rolled a 4. Then Dave rolled for the peace roll, which would give the game to the Allies if he rolled a six, and he, of course, did. The French held enough duchies in Spain to keep Dave from getting any extra bonus points, but because he was tied with the British and he went last in the turn order, he broke the tie and won. It may have taken longer to explain the rules to Dave and Ken than to actually play the whole game. 

On the plus side, Dave loved the game. Like Wilderness War and the other low-density CDGs, there's a great sense of story in this title, so if you can tolerate the fairly luck-driven game-end conditions, there may be a game here you'll like. Oddly, I hated The First World War (a Ted Raicer design published by Phalanx, who screwed it up beyond recognition), which has exactly the same sort of game-ending rolls every turn. Perhaps the difference is that Wellington actually has something to do with history and the fun is in knowing that the clock could run out at any time so you need to make hay while you can. Who knows. 

I do know that I really enjoy this game played with four. The interactions between the two players on each side, at least when people are actively playing for position within their faction, do a fantastic job of simulating the rivalries inherent in any military organization. The French are trying to lose Spain as slowly as possible, but if you're losing it slightly slower than your ally, all the better. Maybe you don't to your ally's aid quite as much as you would otherwise! 

I'm very interested in playing Kutuzov, which is very similar but includes significant rules to simulate morale and attrition issues, and has victory conditions that literally run for six pages of the rules. I don't know how anyone will be able to keep any of that straight for the first ten games they play. Of course, this was all very historical as well, as even Napoleon wasn't really sure what he was trying to accomplish other than "Beat Russia". 

Sort of like the US's military goals in Iraq. Except there, it was about getting back at the people that gave us 9/11. Except that the Iraqi's were never actually involved in that, but hey, they look alike and *someone* needs to pay. Except that the people who are also paying are the next three generations of US taxpayers too. Why do we keep letting people like this run our countries?

Obviously, we were all at loose ends by 1pm, so Ken went out to run a few errands while the rest of us played Team Zopp. After he got back, Ken has been looking at a prototype design of Chuck's that uses the CDG paradigm, while Dave and Mike have been playing Memoir '44, Pacific Theater style. Tonight we play Manifest Destiny, and tomorrow Chuck and Dave and I will play three-player Here I Stand while Mike and Ken play a game to be determined later. Maybe Turning Point: Stalingrad, which is a great game but that tends to bog down in rubble fairly quickly. 

At least I stand a much better chance of not being a huge grump again.

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