Friday, September 19, 2008

Paper or Mounted - Tempest In A Teapot

The new edition of Successors came out from GMT games in the past couple of weeks, and there's been a little controversy over the use of a mounted mapboard, unlike the overwhelmingly paper nature of most maps. Euro and strategy gamers branching out into wargames are constantly annoyed to find that GMT's "deluxe" maps are actually just heavy cardstock rather than mounted, but wargamers prefer paper because they can be put into poster frames or under plexiglass sheets. I prefer the poster frames when possible because I can put a game in progress into a stackable art tray set I have for that purpose, and the games tend to be a little safer from spills and finger oil contact.

I had forgotten that the most recent Command and Colors: Ancients expansions (Barbarians and Civil Wars) came with the same kind of mounted maps. Apparently GMT decided that there was sufficient positive response to these that they chose to try it again with Successors, figuring (correctly) that because it was almost more a multiplayer strategy game than a wargame, or at least would appeal to that demographic, that it would help sales. 

However, one of the problems with the original maps for C&C:A was that you had to put a lot of terrain tiles down on the map. With a poster frame, the tiles tended to slip a bit more than usual. If you spent time trying to get the tiles *under* the plexi, it could be a bit of a chore and the positioning of some of the tiles could produce a situation where some would slide around under the plexi. The new mounted map has a linen finish, lies flat, and the tiles tend to stay put. Plus, if you want to play the big Epic scenarios, they fit together quite well. The original map, of the "deluxe" kind, is actually my default preference for wargame maps, but a) C&C:A really isn't a "wargame" as I normally think of it, and b) it didn't really work well with the tiles. 

So perhaps using this sort of map for Successors wasn't that great of an idea, although if any games should use mounted maps, they should also be playable in a single session, which I define as 4-5 hours. Sux barely makes that time limit with the new rules - tournament experience with 2nd edition rules a few years ago saw a full game run about five hours, up to six in the elimination rounds. That said, this is the kind of game that isn't going to be put away for a couple weeks and people come back to it, as longer two player games might be. 

Now let's throw into the mix Conflict of Heroes, a new game from Academy Games that is shooting for the entry-level wargame demographic, along the lines of Combat Commander. The components are very high end for a wargame, although I'm already seeing why *in most cases* paper maps are preferable. The maps are single-fold thick fiberboard, much like those in Tide of Iron (another recent and, IMHO, disastrous attempt at this niche), although not quite as thick as those in the latter title. They are already very slightly warped right out of the box. Moisture on these will almost certainly ruin them, a critical issue for a game that relies on line of sight, although the hex containing blocking terrain blocks LOS rather than the graphic (as in CC). The maps are also intended to be connected to each other, unlike CC, which also makes them a bit more difficult to get in a poster frame (but not under plexi). 

CoH costs $75 retail. There are five or six maps, something like 40 or 50 units for each side, plus an equal number of marker counters, all very large and heavy, like you would see in a euro-style family game. The cards are M:tG sized, but slightly thinner so they don't fit into standard card sleeves terribly well (although it's better to do this than not as the cards feel a bit on the flimsy side to me - not as bad as the cards in the US release of Agricola, which were nearly tissue-paper flimsy, but I can't put several hundred cards in sleeves without raising the cost of that euro game to over $100). The box, which would be fine for most games, feels like it's barely holding on when I pick it up.

But I digress. My point is that CoH almost certainly raised it's costs, both for components and shipping (due to weight) by a good 25-40% by including more euro-gamer friendly components. The game is clearly aimed at that demographic rather than grognards, so it's clearly an attempt to sell more games. Plus, it's intended as a system where you can purchase expansions, or more boxed stand-alone games. Also, the cost of some components clearly affected others, such as the cards, the box, and the Giant Square Rules (not to mention the Giant Square Book o' Scenarios, which is *glued* together rather than stapled, which is nearly impossible to backfold, includes the turn track *in* the book for each scenario, and demonstrates that the game needed a more experienced developer with some experience with scenario-based games). 

Did I mention that my ruleset came with the pages out of order? Can you imagine how much fun *that* will be to sort through looking for rules? And the reference card puts a non-optional movement choice under the optional movement rules section? 

My point is that games cost money to produce. I like to have components that will stand up to repeated play, as I like to have components that are of a similar quality. Successors does a good job of doing both, and their decision to try out a mounted board in a game that is more wargame than multiplayer strategy game is, I think, not a bad one, if not a decision I'd like to see translated to all of their games. Conflict of Heroes, on the other hand, overcompensates for component quality in some areas while undercompensating in others, all clearly to keep the game at a particular price point. 

I have not yet played CoH, so I can't give an assessment of whether it will be a good game or not. Trying to understand what the term "action" meant gave me a bit of a headache early, demonstrating that clear terminology is a very important part of gaming in general, but critical in wargaming. However, it seems to hit a pretty sweet spot for me, so long as it doesn't make the same bone-headed choices as Tide of Iron did wrt actual play (you can lay smoke in a hex *after* you move into it, and *after* your opponent can op fire on you in ToI, completely the opposite of actual tactical practice and common sense, making it very bloody to advance through open terrain). 

Of course, the idea that Phalanx Games had even the slightest connection to CoH was very nearly enough to make me run screaming from a purchase decision, but then again I can rationalize just about any purchase if it's shiny enough. 

In conclusion, I'd suggest to GMT Games that just because C&C:A had a good response to mounted boards does not mean that they should start mounting, say, the next von Borries Eastern Front game (Barbarossa: The Whole Frackin' Continent) with 32 maps and a shipping weight of one quarter metric ton. Grognards like maps they can put under plexi, so stick with that idea unless there are good reasons not to (like attracting non-grognards to the hobby - I'm all for that). Because I'd really rather not have to take a mounted map and scan/print it just so it will go in a poster frame so I can tuck it away for a few days.

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